How to apologize (a.k.a. ask for meḥila)

One of the most beautiful and beneficial Jewish traditions, in my opinion, is using the Hebrew month of Elul – the month prior to Rosh Hashana – to work on ourselves and to ask forgiveness (meḥila in Hebrew) from those we have wronged.  Just imagine if all who celebrate the New Year on January 1 would use the month of December as a time to improve themselves and shore up their relationships.

In addition, the ancient Jewish approaches towards accomplishing these tasks contain timeless psychological wisdom.  Two of the basic components of teshuva (repentance), as Rabbeinu Yonah laid out in his 13th century classic Gates of Repentance, are remorse and confession.

One thing I’ve long felt is misunderstood when it comes to apologies is that simply saying, “I’m sorry,” or “Do you forgive me?” does not really accomplish much – if the goal is to gain forgiveness and to mend fences.  It seems to me that apologizing is effective only when it includes both remorse and confession – meaning:

1)      Admitting that I was wrong, and

2)      Enunciating to the other person precisely what I did wrong.

Note that, in Judaism, confession isn’t just “I confess: I messed up.”  It’s “I confess: I messed up, and this is how I messed up.”  As the Yom Kippur confession ritual goes, “Forgive us… for the sin that we sinned before you by doing X.”

Both elements – remorse and confession – are important in order to accomplish what an apology is supposed to accomplish – i.e. to show the other person that I now realize what I have done to that person.

So a big pet peeve of mine is when someone thinks he’s apologizing, but he’s really not.  The most common examples I find are:

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” or

“I’m sorry for anything you feel I did wrong to you,” or even

“I’m sorry if I hurt you in any way.”

Any apology that begins “I’m sorry” and has the subject “you” soon after is not an apology!  You are not showing the person you’ve realized what you’ve done to him/her!!

The last example – “I’m sorry if I hurt you in any way” is a little better, because at least you’re accepting some sort of responsibility for hurting the person.  But you’re doing so only contingently, and so you’re showing that you do not truly realize that you did anything hurtful.

Here’s my favorite Biblical example of an effective apology (Numbers 21:5-7):

The people spoke against YHWH and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food [i.e. the manna from heaven].”  Then YHWH sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against YHWH and against you.

The Israelite god Hashem (YHWH) and Moses immediately forgive them, and Moses creates the Nehushtan of American Medical Association fame to heal them.

Nehushtan

The Israelites’ apology is only five words long in the Hebrew, yet it contains both elements of an effective apology:

1)      Admitting that I did something wrong (“We have sinned,”)

2)      Stating to the other person what I did wrong (“for we have spoken against Hashem and against you).

And so Hashem and Moses very appropriately accept the apology immediately.

A more recent example of an effective apology was when a Major League baseball pitcher threw one of the few perfect games in baseball history, except that the first-base umpire Jim Joyce called the last batter in the game safe at first.  Replays showed that the umpire blew the call, and it wasn’t even close.

It’s not like the pitcher could have said, “Oh well; I’ll just throw another perfect game.”  So how could the umpire possibly redeem himself?  Yet Mr. Joyce came through with such an effective apology that not only did he redeem himself in the eyes of the pitcher and popular opinion, he garnered greater respect than he had before the incident.  Here’s how:

He really admitted he did something wrong, and he very clearly stated what he did wrong.  He showed tons of remorse and did some serious confession.

So some simple everyday examples of effective apologies?

Honey, I’m very sorry; you were expecting me to bring dinner home tonight, and I didn’t.

I’m sorry, my friend.  I spoke behind your back, instead of going to straight to you.

I’m sorry, my son/daughter.  I wasn’t there for you as a parent when you needed one.

Remorse and confession – simple!  Not always easy, of course.  But simple nonetheless!

So maybe next time you’ve messed up, try it out.  Think “I have to do two things: acknowledge that I did something wrong (remorse) and state what I did wrong (confession).”

Let us know if it works!

Finally, what do you do when you want to mend fences with someone but you actually don’t think you did anything wrong?  Here’s an interesting article that just came out in Harvard Business Review that suggests a way to have the confession without the remorse and still gain some benefit, by showing that you’re aware of what effect your actions had on the other person: http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2013/04/what-to-do-when-youve-angered.html.  Enjoy!

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