Say Sorry vs Do Sorry: A Restorative Look at Apologies and Addressing Harm

“I’m sorry!” How often have we said these words and also been on the receiving end of them? How often did we feel it was genuine? How often did we really mean it? These are the many challenges with saying sorry – it’s quick, not necessarily authentic, and doesn’t guarantee change.  Relationship expert and author Harriet Lerner echoes these frustrations in her book Why Won’t You Apologize?  For Lerner, an apology has both “empathy and remorse” but it made me wonder, even if done correctly…is saying sorry enough? 

Here are some of the differences between the two versions of sorry:

Say SorryDo Sorry
Singular eventRepeated event/behavior
Small amount of timeLong term
May occur without full understanding of impactAllows for full understanding of impact
May be interpreted as disingenuousAddress the harm

I’m currently in a certificate program through the University of San Diego’s Restorative Justice Program, where I’m learning not only the basics of restorative justice but also how many areas, events and actions could adopt a restorative lens.  For starters, restorative justice is an alternative approach to addressing harm caused by a person, entity or event.   

Here’s a common example: a teen is arrested for vandalizing a memorial on campus. The traditional trajectory of their case would have them pay a fine and possibly do community service through the court system. In a restorative process, the teen would be diverted to a community circle, where the teen, members of the university community and any potential victims could participate. The teen could also have a support person. In this circle, the offender hears the impact of their actions – something entirely missing from a retributive process. In this case,  perhaps the memorial was paid for and erected by a family who lost their mother. This ties the physical memorial to real human beings and their feelings around the destruction of the memorial. Here is where true learning of one’s impact can occur. Additionally, the circle participants are able to participate in problem solving as to how the offender can make amends, beginning with but not ending with an apology. In this hypothetical, the teen might agree to help restore the memorial and also volunteer their time to a cause that was important to the late mother. This is a restorative rather than a punitive process, which holds many benefits. First, the victims/family have a greater ability to heal from this event by witnessing the offender/teen understand the impact of the event. Next, instead of simply paying a fine, the teen is able to name how they caused harm and take accountability for making things right. Lastly, this process is widely researched as one that overwhelmingly reduces the possibility of re-offending.   

‘Doing’ sorry involves a commitment to make things right. It also requires a true understanding of the impact your actions have had on the other person. Each of these elements are time intensive; however, the benefits of restoring a relationship and healing can make it worthwhile.  

Want more on this topic? Watch the University of Colorado Boulder’s June 9, 2020 Lunch and Learn. Kirsi Aulin, Director of the Ombuds Office presents Apologies – So Why Won’t You Apologize?

By: Lisa Neale, Ombuds at University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz

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