When “I’m sorry” is not Enough

What makes for a meaningful apology?

Apologies are difficult. They are difficult for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are hard because we don’t know what we should say. Sometimes they are hard because we are embarrassed by what we did and by why we did it. Sometimes they are hard because our feelings are not where we want them to be; we don’t feel true contrition yet. Oftentimes they are hard because we have trouble believing that healing is possible. Whatever the combination of reasons, I was reminded in a recent podcast that no matter the situation, a good apology can go a long way towards healing both parties.  

This American Life published a podcast titled, “Get a Spine!” Among other things, it highlights an apology given by Dan Harmon, a co-creator of Community, to one of his former female employees, Megan Ganz. This apology was centered around how he had abused his power to try and win her favor for several years in the workplace. After she had turned him down, he treated her cruelly until he was eventually fired, ostensibly due to ratings.

This is a serious and prolonged case of sexual harassment that caused his employee a tremendous amount of hurt and confusion. Dan tried to apologize several times, but Megan told him they weren’t good enough. Finally after about 5 years , he delivered a very meaningful apology while recording one of his podcasts. It was an apology that even Megan Ganz, the former employee, accepted; she said so publicly.

I want to break down the text briefly, then offer hope for future apologies.

To my understanding, Dan’s apology was effective because he not only put a great deal of effort into it, but it was specific, empathetic, sincere, and authentic.

First, it was specific. Dan admitted to exactly what he had done wrong and explained each point as well as he could. He expressed specifically, albeit with some of meandering, what he had done that was so wrong. In sum, he admitted to the following things:

  1. He deceived himself about the significance of the attraction he felt for Megan.
  2. He deprived Megan of the opportunity to receive meaningful feedback on her writing since his motivations were always mixed as a supervisor.
  3. He abused his power in several ways through all of this ordeal.
  4. He lied about his feelings for another to his girlfriend at the time.

 

Being specific is extremely difficult because it requires digging into and then sitting with the motivations behind our actions. In the podcast, it’s clear that Dan feels the most distress at how much he was able to deceive himself when it came to acknowledging that feelings he could not control were heavily influencing his decisions. That is difficult to sit with because recognizing it doesn’t mean it won’t happen again and it means admitting to how weak we can be. Shoot, I’ve been motivated by fear, jealousy, and anger many times. It has necessitated several apologies whether to others or God. Being specific about the causes behind our actions is very difficult, but a necessary part of the most meaningful apology someone could give.

Second, it was empathetic. Dan admitted that he didn’t know exactly what it must have felt like on the receiving end of these abuses of power, but he acknowledged that it must have been very difficult and was incredibly unfair. Even though it is impossible to know exactly another person’s experience, it is possible to acknowledge with contrition some sense of the hurt the other must have felt.

As crazy as it might seem, you can be empathetic in a meaningful way after having caused the harm that person felt. Your emotions in the present are different from your emotions in the past. Circumstances change and your own motivations become clearer with time. Everyone experiences fluctuations in their emotions and if your apology also includes some explanation as to why you feel differently, empathy can be more easily received.

Third, the apology was sincere. Dan was clearly creating it as he was recording his podcast and being very intentional about every word that he said. His pauses punctuate the depth of this thought which betrays the strength of his conviction. He meant what he said and said what he meant. That doesn’t mean everything he said was right or perfect, but the apology came from his heart.

Frankly, this is encouraging because the more we struggle with making an apology the more sincere the apology will be. I’ve spent hours trying to name specifically why I did something. This has included journaling and conversation with others. Ultimately, that struggle is worthwhile because it will not only inform the apology, but helps me have the assurance that I am feeling sincere contrition.

Finally, and this was perhaps the most difficult one, his apology was authentic. Dan managed to create his own apology without much direction from Megan. He had asked her how to apologize during a 5 year period after the incidents had unfolded, but Megan had denied him an easy answer because she wasn’t sure either. Part of the effectiveness of this apology is that Dan came up with it on his own after careful thought and investigation. The entirety of the apology was made and delivered by Dan.

The same must be true for our own apologies. We oftentimes have to craft them ourselves and we always have to deliver them ourselves. The crafting can be very difficult because sometimes the other person doesn’t know what they want to hear, but we need to say something. It was true in the example above. I’ve sometimes coached friends on what I need to hear from them and, funny enough, it actually helps when they listen and say, “I understand.” Delivery too is difficult since you must be the one to do it. The delivery can happen via text or phone or video or in person, but it has to be crafted and delivered by you somehow.

Apologies can be incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons, but a meaningful apology includes being specific, empathetic, sincere, and authentic. The most important thing to remember and the best lesson we can take away from Dan’s podcast is that healing is possible for everyone and an apology can go a long way towards facilitating it.

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Image courtesy FlickrCC user ashish joy.

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