Donald Trump’s apology last week, and the quick acceptance by some of his apology, provide us with a teachable moment. I’d like to bring some clarity to what makes up an apology so we can all be better at it.
(Please note, this is not a political statement. My blog and books are dedicated to helping people to be spiritually and emotionally healthy. Put aside your politics for a moment. See what you can learn about apologies so you can apologize well and expect more from those who apologize.)*
What Is An Apology?
First, let’s look at what makes up an apology. I’ve written a number of posts about making an apology on this blog. In fact, I wrote four posts on each aspect of an apology. But here is a brief overview of the four components to an apology:
- Fully admit (100%) to what you did, and it’s impact, to everyone offended. Resist the temptation to excuse, minimize, blame others, or justify your actions in any way.
- Express true sorrow for the impact of your offense. Speak in terms that show people you understand the pain you’ve caused them (empathy).
- Ask forgiveness of all those offended.
- Work to rebuild trust by stopping the offensive behavior, taking corrective action, and making amends.
When you take these four steps, there is a good chance that people will forgive your behavior. They might also give you a shot at restoring the relationship. If you cut corners, you run the risk of intensifying the offense instead of removing it.
Measuring Trump’s Apology
If you read/watch Trump’s apology, observe how it lines up with these four steps. Trump’s words fail the test of a true apology at each point. For example:
- Full admission: Trump said he has “said and done things” he regrets, but he never mentioned what they were. He never apologized directly to the women he referenced. He minimized his actions by saying his words were merely “locker room talk,” a mere distraction to more important issues, and that the event was ten years old.
- True sorrow: Trump never mentioned the impact that his actions had on anyone or expressed sorrow for the impact.
- Asking forgiveness. He did not ask for forgiveness of any individuals or the public at large.
- Making amends. Nothing was said about how he would try to make this up to the people he hurt or the trust he broke. Eighty percent of the words in his statement sought to justify himself, divert people’s attention, and even attack Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Chris Christie, one of Trump’s biggest backers, thought the statement fell short of an apology:
When asked whether he thought Trump’s apology was enough, Christie responded, “I didn’t think it was on Friday or Saturday, and I told him that. I would have done it much differently.” “He should have been much more direct and much more focused on saying, just saying, “‘I’m sorry’ and only ‘I’m sorry,’” Christie added. ABC News
What bothers me so much about Trump’s statement is that it set a poor example for other people to follow. It reinforces our low view of what makes up an apology. He’s not alone. Most people in the news offer an apology similar to Trump’s.
These “apologies” confuse people about what is necessary to reconcile an offense. Just because they use the words “I apologize” doesn’t mean it’s a true apology. We should expect more from them.
The response that I’ve heard from many people is that, “He apologized. I forgive him. Let’s move on.” I’m all for forgiveness, but the sentence I just quoted lacks a great deal of logic for these reasons:
- “He apologized.” No he didn’t, for the reasons I mentioned above. He only said the words “I apologize.” It was merely his attempt to appease people who were offended.
- “I forgive him.” To “forgive” simply means to give up the right to get even with someone: to pay them back. So yes, we can hopefully all forgive Trump and not try to pay him back. No one should slander him or rob him of dignity, even though his words did that to others.
- “Let’s move on.” To move on just because someone used the words, “I apologize” is naive at best. If the behavior in question is a pattern, then we have a right to ask for verification of a change of behavior. We aren’t talking about the misbehavior of a neighbor or co-worker here. This is a candidate for the presidency of the United States. It’s fair to expect more.
I can forgive you for your behavior, but if your behavior broke my trust, then you need to rebuild my trust before I gift you with it again. To trust someone who hasn’t shown, what the Bible calls, “the fruits (evidence) of repentance” is foolish. You are asking to be hurt again.
It’s shameful to accept an “apology” or offer forgiveness simply to white-wash immoral behavior and release someone from their accountability to their behavior. That is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.” God’s grace is more than mercy. It’s the power to live a new life and be a better person. I can forgive Donald Trump without him changing his behavior. But to trust him without him offering a true apology and rebuilding trust is to misunderstand and misuse the grace of God.
Seizing a Teachable Moment
I’m not writing this post to promote Hillary Clinton. She might be just as guilty of what I’m saying about Trump. Trump’s behavior is what’s in the news right now and provides us with a teachable moment on the issues surrounding what it means to apologize. Vote for whomever you’d like, but let’s be clear that the examples of Trump’s apology, and his supporters acceptance of that apology, miss the mark. My hope is that you and I will have a higher standard whenever we seek to recover from a broken relationship.
You might enjoy this article by two experts in the field of forgiveness.
- updated, 10/15/16, 11:30 a.m. CST.