One reason why so many people find it difficult to apologize is that they are afraid that the apology they offer will be rejected and then they will feel humiliated.
It’s a real possibility. In fact, it is in that possibility that apology has its power. Apology would be much less powerful if every apology had to be accepted.
So the bad news is that even when you apologize in all sincerity, there is the possibility that the victim will reject it. The good news is that the possibility is pretty rare. In fact, in all the research I did for my book, I came across only two instances of a reasonably complete apology not being accepted.
So, let me ask you. Have you ever apologized in a reasonably complete fashion and the apology was rejected?
I asked this question on the BK Communique, a recent blog post from my publisher Berrett-Koehler. A reader named Carrie offered the following example of an apology being rejected. I include it here followed by my comment.
I recently had an apology rejected. After reading this, I now realize why it upset me so much. I was in a dance class and in the middle of a turn, I accidentally hit my partner in the nose with my elbow. Which is painful enough, but this particular guy had recently had sinus surgery. I was mortified, I apologized profusely, genuinely. But he only kept shouting how much it hurt, repeating “Why would you come out of a turn with your elbow up? You should NEVER have your elbow up!! Never, never, never!” This otherwise pleaseant guy was speaking to me in a very angry and condescending tone. I explained it was an honest accident, I was sorry that I hurt him, that I would never do it again, and I offered to go get him ice. He never once said “It’s Ok”, accepted my apology or let me off the hook in any way.
I was in tears by the time I left class, I was so upset about what I’d done and how he’d made me feel about it. I continued to be upset for about 2 hours afterword – I could NOT let it go – and now I realize it’s because he never accepted my apology.
The following week in class, I tried to avoid him, but was forced to rotate to dance with him at the end of class. I approached him with a joke, “Are you sure you want to risk it?” and he finally eased up and let me off the hook with, “Oh yeah! You’re a great dancer and I always want to dance with you. I was just so upset last week because I just had surgery 2 months ago and I was afraid I was going to hemorrhage in class – I’d been having bad nosebleeds. I know it was an accident.” Even with this, though, the whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to this man.
This was my response to Carrie’s story.
Carrie’s story is very moving. I could feel how upset she was that she hurt someone by accident, apologized profusely, and yet the other person refused to say that he understood that she didn;t mean it and that he accepted her apology.
The good news is that he eventually did accept the apology, even if he didn’t do it as quickly and as formally as Carrie might like.
I take two lessons from this story. One, there’s a difference between rejecting an apology and not accepting it immediately. Sometimes it takes time for the victim to get it together. Second, I congratulate Carrie for remaining in the dance class. Less confident people might have just dropped out in an effort to avoid the awkward feelings. And then the possibillity of apology would have ended. As it is, the relationship, such as it is, is restored and maybe, who knows, can evolve in a new way that would have been impossible without the injury/apology/reconciliation.
So, I ask the question again, in a slightly modified form.
Have you every offered a reasonably complete apology and found that in the fullness of time the person you apologized to would not accept it?