Most of us who studied agriculture never realized that we would end up spending so much time dealing with people rather than plants and animals. That’s why farm employers and other industry leaders often ask me for help as a mediator. Today I want to share a few thoughts about apologies. 

We must first recognize our error before we can make things right. While never easy, it is even harder when such recognition requires a public acknowledgement—an apology—to those we have injured.

It is not surprising that most of the apologies we hear are quasi-apologies at best, if not outright justifications and blame misdirected at the injured parties. We often hear such false expressions of regret such as “If you’re hurt, I’m sorry!,” “I’m sorry, already!” and “I am sorry, but...”

A true apology requires a great deal of humility and includes a sincere expression of regret as well as changed behavior and, when possible, restitution.

Some people attempt to make things right by changing behavior without openly recognizing mistakes. This partial effort at making things right is seldom enough. Even more difficult than public recognition of our mistake is a willingness to hear, directly from the injured party, precisely how much pain we have caused. It is natural to wish we could shield ourselves from the discomfort of vicariously re-living these moments—and instead try to compensate in other ways.    

Nor can we decide that it is now time to be fully forgiven. This impatience again shows our lack of humility. Furthermore, we are making it harder for the person we have injured to heal—and, ironically, extending the period of resentment they may have toward us.

Another ineffective apology is the empty expression of regret. That is, apologies which are not accompanied by a change in behavior. For example, in cases of domestic violence (physical, verbal or emotional), it is not uncommon for the aggressor to be contrite afterwards. By the next day, he or she may have begun to minimize the damage and blame the victim (and, not long thereafter, repeat this cycle of abuse). As powerful as an apology can be, when an individual rescinds it by word or deed, it would have been better if no regrets had been offered.

All these shortcuts to a true apology are like building on a poor foundation. If we notice that the concrete foundation for the structure we are building is faulty, we can close our eyes and continue work at our own peril. As painful as it may seem, the sooner we recognize our mistake, make the necessary expenditures to break up and remove the concrete foundation and start over, the better off we will be. Depending on how far into a project (or relationship) we are, this can be quite painful and expensive.

Part of the process of acknowledging we need to make alterations is to announce the change in behavior in the form of a goal that will help us improve our interpersonal approach. For example, if we have been extremely critical in the past, we can let people we offended know that we plan to rid ourselves of that habit by studying more constructive ways to offer feedback.

The topic of forgiveness is just as complex. A person who cannot forgive and holds on to his pain suffers much more than the offending party. When we have forgiven, we do not continually remind others of the offense. Some comments and deeds are so hurtful, however, that substantial time may have to transpire before we can truly be free of the associated pain.

Gregorio Billikopf is a labor management farm advisor for the University of California. He may be reached at gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu.