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How To Apologize

A look into apologies from a neurological intelligence perspective

When I was a kid I did not understand apologies very well. One time at an art day camp I told someone that their artwork looked ugly. He was so upset that he snitched to the camp leader, who made me apologize. I said sorry, and the kid was still upset. They told me to "Say it like I mean it" whatever that meant, so I changed my voice to make it sound pitiful and regretful and said sorry again. They preferred the second apology to the first, even though I wasn't any more sorry the second time.

I did not learn to apologize better from that exchange, but I did learn that people care a lot and can be very particular about how you apologize.

They care because an apology has a purpose. I now know that apologies are supposed to initiate, or facilitate the healing of a broken relationship. If your apology doesn't do that, then others won't accept it.

While other people have a very specific expectation of what your apology should look like, you might have different reasons for wanting to apologize. Usually people apologize after they realize that their actions affect themselves or after they realize how their actions affected others. For example, when I hurt the kid's feelings I could have apologized out of fear of the punishment the camp instructor might give me, or I could have apologized because I realized how much I had hurt the kid. The first motivation does not make for a good apology because people want to believe that you care about them.

Apology Methods

In addition to looking at good and bad apologies we will also be looking at the 5 different methods of apologizing. These methods were found by marriage councilor Gary Chapman. He calls them the languages of apology; they are: expressing regret, restitution, requesting forgiveness, not doing it again, and accepting responsibility. He found these different types of apologies by interviewing people, and asking them "if you were to apologize to someone how would you do it?", and "if someone were to apologize to you how would you want them to do it?"

Apology Theory

It turns out that these different types of apologies are rooted in the ethics of neurological intelligence. You can read more about these in my post titled Meta Ethics. As a quick recap the theory states that there are two systems of ethics. The first states that ethical behavior is motivated by preserving or enhancing your identity. This theory is where bad apologies come from. The second states that ethical behavior comes from building or preserving your relationships, this is where good apologies come from. Both systems of ethics have six different ethical principles which define them.

The sixth relationship ethic states that you need to show people mercy; one way to do this is through apologizing for the ways that you failed the other ethics. Therefore the sixth ethic is not an apology method, but apologizing itself. Similarly the sixth identity ethic is not a method of making a poor apology, but instead the motivation for making a poor apology.

Language 1: Don't Do it Again

When you stop doing something that is wrong you are following the social contracts ethic. This ethic states that the only way to keep people from taking advantage of each other is to make mutually beneficial social contracts. When you stop doing harmful things you show that you are capable of creating and keeping social contracts again.

The identity ethic that corresponds to this is the values ethic. It states that the things you believe are right are what is right. If you stop doing the things that you believe are wrong this might be good or bad, that depends on whether you were right or not. But it is not necessarily an apology. For it to be an apology it would have to actually be benefiting others with your change of behavior.

Language 2: Restitution

Restitution means that you try to correct the bad thing you have done. It comes from the common good ethic, which states that in order to reap the greatest benefit from group living you must contribute to the common good of society. When you make restitution you show that what you have done has placed an additional burden on someone, and the only way to make that up is to contribute to them. Sometimes restitution means that our undue the thing that you did wrong. If you steal, then you return it; if you break something, then you replace it. However there are some things that you cannot undo. In these cases you contribute something else to the person you harmed. You can work it out with them to figure out what would be acceptable.

You might also make restitution to show others that you are a good person. This line of thought comes from the virtue signaling ethic, and while it is great that you are doing the right thing, this is not the best way too apologize. It could lead you to think that you can just balance your bad deeds with good deeds, but this idea fails to strengthen the bonds that you have with others.

Language 3: Request Forgiveness

When you request forgiveness from someone you are showing them that their opinion really matters to you, and you want to rebuild the relationship that you have with them. This follows the negotiation ethic which states that you should change your social contracts in order to benefit everyone involved in them. When you request forgiveness you recognize that your actions went against the best interest of the person you wronged, and that you should have received their permission before acting.

The autonomy ethic states that you should change your values in order to bolster your identity depending on each scenario. If you request forgiveness not because you care about what the other person thinks, but to avoid retribution from them, then you are following this ethic. This request for forgiveness is not a heartfelt apology because you are only thinking of yourself.

Language 4: Accept Responsibility

The responsibility ethic states that you should change your social contracts in order to help the people you lead. When you accept the responsibility for your actions you try to manage the consequences of your actions. This shows the people that you have wronged that you still want to help them. You don't want your actions to be a burden to them.

The branding ethic states that you should change your values in order to best embody the things you represent. If you take responsibility of your actions so that you can save your image this is a great thing to do, but it isn't a great apology. It shows people that you care about yourself more than the people that you harmed.

Language 5: Expressing Regret

When you express regret for your behavior you are being accountable to others. This follows the fifth relationship ethic which states that you must hold other people accountable for their actions by telling them how their actions have influenced others. When you express regret you tell the person you have wronged that you realize how much your actions have hurt them, and let them know that you wish you hadn't hurt them because of how much they mean to you.

The self assessment ethic is the opposing ethic it states that you should evaluate your own behavior, and determine if it is actually beneficial to you. You might feel bad because you realize that your behavior is wrong and it is hurting you. But this regret is not an apology, because you don't have anyone to express it to.

If you do express regret to someone because you realize that your actions are hurting yourself you will seem insincere. They will probably be like the kid with terrible drawing skills, and claim you aren't actually sorry, just sorry that your actions caught up to you.

Final Thoughts

Although there are several ways to apologize, not all of the methods are necessary every time. For instance the kid whose feelings I hurt seemed to be fine after I expressed regret, and I stopped hurting his feelings. Something that I did not talk about is the relationship between personality, and apology methods. Gary Chapman's work focusses on this topic a lot, and suggests that for some people one of the apology methods will resonate with them far better than the others.

One other thing that I wanted to point out is that the different apology methods are also the steps of repentance. So repentance is making an apology to God for the sins that you committed against Him. Its purpose is to initiate the rebuilding of your relationship with God. If done properly both repentance and apologizing will lead you to become a better person, and they will allow God and others to regain their trust in you.

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