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Clear the Air by Apologizing

by eloepthien on May 23rd, 2010

(This article was originally published on

An apology is the superglue of life.  It can repair just about anything.
Lynn Johnston

Lingering conflicts are certainly among the worst burdens in our professional and personal lives, don’t you think? Still we sometimes procrastinate clearing the air and uttering an apology seems to be the hardest thing in the world.

Aaron Lazare [1], professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has been researching the psychology of shame, humiliation and apology for many years. In an article for the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center he offers four very simple steps that will make it easier for you to ask for forgiveness, while you will more likely be able to achieve release.

An effective apology consists of up to four parts (which might not all be needed depending on the situation).

1. Acknowledge clearly and completely the offense that you  have caused.

2. Explain where you came from, so that it becomes clear that an offense was neither intended nor meant personally, and that it is therefore unlikely to recur.

3. Express  remorse, shame or humility, to show that you as the offender recognizes the suffering of the one that felt offended.

4. Compensate in a real or symbolic way for your mistake.
When you are following these steps, you should be able to meet some of the psychological needs of the offended person. Keep in mind these goals:

1. Restoration of their dignity

2. Affirmation that you  share values, so that in this case you can agree on that the committed  harm was wrong.

3. Validation that the “victim” was not responsible for the offense.

4. Assurance that the offense will not happen again.

5. Reparative justice and  reparation when the offending party goes through some suffering or humiliation by admitting the wrongdoing and offering support or compensation.

6. Self-expression of the victim’s feelings toward the offender and about their losses.

Lazare’s insights seem to have been  known to the traditional Hawaiian people as well. Their  conflict resolution method is called Ho’oponopono, which means “making things more right[…] so that good relationships among the family […] can be re-established and preserved”.  During the elaborate process, the  mihi (the asking for and the granting of forgiveness) plays a very important role for the solving of larger and smaller conflicts. An authentic and earnest apology that will be rewarded by forgiveness is the first step and followed by finding together an appropriate form of compensation or resurrection.

Take the Time to Release – and Celebrate

After the the problem is solved, the offense was apologized for and got forgiven, the Hawaiians take a moment to fully release the conflict. This step is called kala. The air is clear again, the bond between the people is even stronger than before  and  creativity can flow freely again.

In our family we like to savor this moment by giving each other kisses or high fives. After all, the conflict turned out to be a gift  for each one of us, leaving us more connected and with greater understanding for each other than we had before.

What are your rituals around apologizing and forgiveness?

1 – Aaron Lazare, M.D., wrote an article about this for the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley in California in 2004. He is chancellor, dean, and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is a leading authority on the medical interview, the psychology of shame and humiliation, and apology. His most recent book is On Apology (Oxford University Press, 2004).

2 – Victoria Shook. (2002): Ho’oponopono. Contemporary Uses of a Hawaiian Problem Solving Process. University of Hawai’i Press. Honolulu. Page 10

From → Leadership

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