Atonement used to have a biblical connotation, in that one had to ‘atone’ for one’s sins. To atone is to ask for forgiveness, or to act with remorse and contrition over an event. The hope is that atonement would reconcile opposing parties. The art of apologising or atoning for wrongdoings, carelessness or errors of judgement is a great skill to know about as an unconditional apology usually paves the way to reconciliation. So, how is an apology made which is graceful, without justification or ego, and lets the receiver know that it is heartfelt?
Let’s have a real example of a ‘wrongdoing’ and how an apology can be framed:
A long-standing friendship was at risk of being ended because one friend was regularly listing the shortcomings of the other during their conversations. Let’s call the complainer Julia, and the respondent Rebecca. It came to a head when Julia arrived late for dinner, and then stated that Rebecca “was always late to events.” Rebecca’s response was to glare at her friend, and state she was not always late, and was hardly late at all now. The subsequent meal was strained, and the friends left each other both hurting and offended. They had some desultory texts in the weeks that followed, however there was a solid crack in their friendship.
The options here could have been:
1. Let the friendship just fade away, as it was too hard to get back to their former connection.
2. Keep calm and carry on, with a herd of elephants in the room at every meeting
3. Name the situation and atone for all behaviours.
Fortunately, the friends choose option 3. It is interesting to note that Julia has an anxious/ avoidant attachment style and would probably have gone with option 2, however Rebecca has a secure attachment style and went for option 3. The first telephone conversation since the contretemps went something like this:
Julia: “Hi, oh thanks for ringing, how are you?” Yadda yadda yadda, pretending all was well.
Rebecca: “Hi, yeah fine. Just thought I’d ring to catch up.” Chat chat then pause…. “I’m so sorry I glared at you in the restaurant, I know how much this would upset you.”
Julia: “I’m sorry too, I shouldn’t have said you were always late, I don’t know where that came from.”
The friends went on to explain their respective behaviours of that night, and why it all happened the way it did. By the end of the conversation, Julia thanked her friend for bringing the matter up, as she wouldn’t have been able to. And by apologising for reacting the way she did, Rebecca paved the way for Julia to own her own behaviour. At the conclusion of this telephone call, the friendship was back on solid ground and was growing in strength, with both parties knowing they could speak their truth to each other without fear of conflict.
Being willing to atone for one’s own part in any interaction, even though the other party was ‘more wrong than you,’ paves the way for others to do likewise.