Four Steps to Healing a Fractured Society

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Recently I mentioned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 1995 in South Africa. It was an exercise in restorative rather than retributive justice. Its purpose wasn’t to punish anyone but rather to bear witness, to record, and in some cases, grant amnesty to perpetrators of human rights violations and grant reparation and rehabilitation to victims.

Perhaps most important of all is that it offered ordinary South Africans the opportunity to express in public regret and remorse for failures of their past. Many individuals wrote me to ask why I thought it was such an effective way to heal a fractured society and rebuild trust.

It was effective because it constituted an apology. An apology is the first step in rebuilding trust after it is broken. If it didn’t constitute a complete apology, it at least fulfilled two of four steps that an effective apology entails.

An apology isn’t just “I’m sorry” and a box to be checked off. Nor is it a response to demand from another person. It also isn’t “I am sorry you feel that way”, which we all know isn’t an apology at all. An apology needs to come from a deep inner place of being. It should comprise four steps:

  1. Admission
  2. Remorse
  3. Remediation
  4. Prevention

Admission This isn’t as obvious as it seems, because often victims don’t believe that the perpetrator really acknowledges they did something wrong. Articulating what you did gives the other person a sense of comfort. You are stating that you are aware you did something wrong and you are taking responsibility for it.

Remorse Part of the damage to the victim is that they often perceive that the perpetrator doesn’t respect or care about them. Remorse means referring to an emotion that you feel. This shows up as: “I am truly sorry about what I did…” or “I feel awful about what I did…” or “I am ashamed about what I did…”

Remediation shows up as: “Here is what I would like to do to make up for what I did…”

Prevention shows up as: “Here is what I plan to do so that I don’t repeat this in the future…”

Let’s say you cut someone off in a meeting. This may cause the person to feel disrespected. Later, when having a conversation with this person, your apology may sound something like this: “I realize that I cut you off during our meeting on Monday. I did it in a most disrespectful way, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am that I humiliated you. I am disappointed in myself for having done so. At the start of our next meeting, I am going to refer to you in a way that will make it abundantly clear to everybody how much regard I have for you. May I ask for your help in calling me out next time you notice me cut someone off during a meeting? That way, I can remedy the unintended action immediately.”

Apology restores trust. It strengthens connections and creates bonds. A relationship damaged by an undermining action is often stronger after an apology than it was before the undermining action.

Try it. Observe its impact on your relationships.

I would love to hear about your experiences.

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