Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Is the Act of Forgiveness Dying?

Last week I attended a conference for women in business where the keynote speaker said that for women in business it's wrong to apologize and say "I'm sorry." The speaker exhorted us to promote rather than apologize and ask permission and said instead of apologizing to say "excuse me" or "please go on" and that apologizing is now supposedly a sign of the weakness of women in a business setting. But I have to say here (in my one still and tiny voice) that "I disagree."

Her speech about gravitas and how to have it was given to a huge audience of influential women here in the Princeton area of New Jersey. The lady who said it (and who shall remain nameless to avoid trouble) gave a talk otherwise laudable and praiseworthy, and I recognize that I'm taking this single topic straight out of context (and apologize).

It's the height of arrogance not to apologize when circumstances warrant outpouring expressions of kindness. It makes the person who made a mistake own it (along with shame, guilt, fear) and makes him/her into a better and more trustworthy person, and the apology must be said with sincerity and forgiveness requested and granted or else it won't be believed. Showing empathy and compassion shows your human nature in its best light.

Forgiveness is possibly a genetically inherited character trait, a sign of strength, of empathy, and of compassion. It isn't the sign of a healthy relationship if the other person doesn't admit they are wrong, doesn't take responsibility or ever admit to being at fault. In fact being callous and remorseless has been called a sign of psychopathy.

Not all apologies are equal. We've all heard someone apologize in a sarcastic or insincere way, such as to an opponent in reference to winning a competitive game "I'm sorry to say I won that match." That isn't really meant as a deep apology, and perhaps this casual use of the phrase is inadvisable except in the most casual of settings. 

I do think there is a place even in business for a sincere apology. Apologizing shows respect for the feelings of others. Saying you've made a mistake should also in turn be respected. It does get easier to say the more you say it and you will feel better for saying it. In fact, they are the two (or three) sweetest words I can hear from someone with whom I've had a disagreement, and who I feel is truly at fault.

It's not that I'm a fine example of a businesswoman (far from it), but from an international point of view as I generally have I don't agree that apologizing is a sign of weakness. Apologizing and asking forgiveness is a method useful for reconciliation and continuing diplomacy engaged as a sign of true humility and repentance.

Sincerely, I hope that asking for forgiveness doesn't soon become a lost art because forgiveness helps us all move on with our lives. Apologies are meant to signal that water has passed under the bridge so why not strengthen that metaphorical bridge and not ignore it? Apologizing and asking forgiveness is a useful interpersonal diplomatic tool when the end goal is peace. Don't we all want that?

File:Richmond Bridge Panorama.jpg
wikimedia: Richmond Bridge Tasmania

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