Mon | Aug 21, 2017

The value of an apology

Published:Monday | April 18, 2016 | 4:15 AMMichael Abrahams

When was the last time that you apologised for something that you did, or failed to do? An apology is a regretful acknowledgement of having said or done something that harmed another, and is often of great benefit.
Unfortunately, many perceive apologising to be a sign of weakness, and withhold the action because of their egos, failing to understand the power of such a simple gesture. Two words, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologise’, have the power to salvage or even strengthen relationships, restore trust and reduce the desire for retribution on the part of the wronged or slighted party. Apologising shows strength of character and emotional intelligence and maturity. Instructing children to apologise, when appropriate, teaches them empathy, responsibility and respect.
It is rational and logical to assume that apologising is good for relationships, but research also supports this. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, clearly demonstrated the beneficial effects of apologising. The purpose of the study was to show how people responded when those who offended them offered an apology. The researchers found that when participants received an apology after a conflict, the level of forgiveness rose significantly, and the level of anger fell several weeks after the occurrence.
They deduced that two major factors contributed to the positive outcomes. First, the transgressor was perceived as being more valuable as a relationship partner, since the apology indicated the level of importance the transgressor placed on the relationship, instilling more confidence in the individual who was harmed, making them feel more comfortable with the level of strength and stability of the relationship. Second, the transgressor appeared to be less likely to engage in deleterious behaviours in the future, and genuinely desired for the conflict to end.
Apologies have saved marriages and other intimate unions, as well as friendships, and family and workplace relationships.
Professionally, the value of apologising has been observed and convincingly documented in my profession; the field of medicine. Being human, doctors, like anyone else, are prone to error. Unfortunately, some professions offer more latitude for error than others. If a cashier at a grocery store makes a mistake, the consequences are likely to be minimal, with few long-term effects. A commercial airline pilot, on the other hand, has to be much more vigilant.
In the medical profession, errors can cause significant acute or chronic morbidity or even death. It is well known that failure to apologise or show remorse, in this field, significantly increases the risk of litigation against physicians.
A friend of mine underwent what was to have been a relatively minor procedure. During the recovery phase, she kept telling her physician that something was wrong, but he dismissed her complaints. Eventually, he realised that she had developed a very serious complication, necessitating more extensive surgery, causing her severe pain and prolonged disability. She decided to consult a lawyer regarding taking legal action against the physician. At no time since the initial procedure did the doctor apologise to her for the pain and disability caused by the delay in diagnosis. The litigation process was not so much about the complication, but the attitude of the doctor. Her problem was with her jaw, but in any speciality of medicine, complications can and do occur, no matter how careful one might be.
I recently had a patient who, at her first visit, came for a simple procedure, but a complication arose which necessitated urgent intervention. I apologised profusely to the patient for the inconvenience and distress, and also to her husband. The impact of the apology on her was so great that she apologised to me for contributing to my rough day. Not only did she return to me for further visits, but also referred a co-worker, confident that I would take good care of her. Had my initial attitude been different, the outcome could have been far less pleasant.
For an apology to be truly effective, one has to be sincere, and not just apologise, but acknowledge the feelings of the wronged party, take responsibility, and offer to make amends, if possible. It must be clear that you are not proud of your actions, and have no intention of repeating the offence. Insincere or forced apologies, where the apologiser does not feel that there was any wrongdoing, can lead to feelings of resentment or humiliation, possibly even resulting in the plotting of revenge.
You should never feel that you are too big to apologise. Former South African president, Frederik W. de Klerk, publicly apologised for apartheid, expressing regret for 42 years of enforced segregation. "For too long we clung to a dream of separated nation states, when it was already clear that it could not succeed sufficiently,” de Klerk said, before adding, “For that we are sorry."
A little humility can go a long way. If you think that you owe someone an apology, consider offering the gesture before it is too late.

-Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.