Apology and Forgiveness in Reconciliation: How Words Can Mend and Begin to Heal a Transgressional Divide

by Marin Hollingsworth

Conflict is present in every realm of life. Individuals experience conflict in the workplace, relational conflict, and many even live in widespread, intractable conflict which significantly shape their way of life and standard of living. While the connotation of the word “conflict” expresses a problematic situation that many try to avoid, it is important to recognize that conflict will never truly be eliminated; rather, it is necessary for societies to experience.

Without conflict, we would live in a stagnant society with no constructive growth. Though often painful, conflict is the engine for social change; it is necessary for our growth into more positive beings (Burgess & Burgess, 2021). Despite the necessity for social struggles, we do hope the conflict that afflicts us to be nonviolent and resolvable. However, the complexities of human conflict often result in transgressions far more complicated and damaging to resolve easily. Indeed, most times, a quiet apology is not enough to undo harm caused by an oppressor’s wrongdoing. Conflict resolution must go beyond the simple repair and subsequent growth we strive for because of exhaustive conflict. Reconciliation is required for true societal, community, and interpersonal growth in the face of social conflict.

In the field of conflict resolution, reconciliation is understood as the restoration of a relationship between parties divided by an offense and brought about through justice (Hatch, 2006). Though this is a typical explanation of the term, the concept of reconciliation is more loosely interpreted. For example, reconciliation can be a meeting place between peace, truth, mercy, and justice with an envisioned future that thrives on interdependence (Lederach, 1997). However, reconciliation can and should be more than an end goal; it should be dynamic and evolving. If approached as a process, reconciliation can profoundly change the heart and spirit in a way that drives people towards a deeper level of living together (Clements & Lee, 2020; Gaertner, 2011; Lederach, 1997). Reconciliation is the joining of fragmented relationships to a functional social space where the victim and oppressor not only live together in nonviolence and without malice, but in trust and friendship (Gaertner, 2011).           

When thinking of reconciliation as an outcome and a process (Burgess & Burgess, 2021), we must consider the conditions necessary to achieve any type of reconciled relationship. As previously stated, Lederach (1997) explains that reconciliation is only possible when opposite parties come together in a place where peace, truth, justice, and mercy meet. While each are individually significant, to achieve reconciliation in a meaningful form, the elements must be intertwined when working through conflict. For instance, once truth is revealed, granting justice and mercy becomes possible. No single element is more important than another. However, forgiveness, or mercy, following a genuine apology offers a more vital approach to reconciliation because it recognizes the emotion and humanity of an individual (Gaertner, 2011; Mu & Bobocel, 2019).

Granting forgiveness, “allows the person who committed the reprehensible act to begin anew, to take up another life and another activity” and reintegrate into the reconciled society that has grown through the experienced conflict (Gaertner, 2011). This paper will argue the importance of active apology and forgiveness in the process of addressing past wrongs while navigating reconciliation through discovering why humans apologize, the nature of an apology, how to make an acceptable apology, and how compassion and forgiveness elicits reconciliation and reflects the restoration of two relationships.

Why We Apologize

For many, it is very difficult to accept one’s own wrongdoing and summon the courage to face a victim of one’s own transgression. From a simple offense in a romantic or familial relationship, a public misdeed in the workplace, or even national and international intractable and violent conflict directed at many individuals, there are many reasons to make an apology, and yet, many reasons why people refuse to do so. According to Mu and Bobocel (2019), there are four main reasons individuals choose to apologize including self-blame, relational value, personal expedience, or a fear of sanctions.

When self-blame or feelings of guilt for a wrongdoing burden an individual, an apology can be an attempt by the transgressor to take responsibility and acknowledge the harm caused by their action. In a similar sense, many individuals apologize to preserve a relationship. Expressing regret for an action and correcting a misdeed in aims to reconcile a relationship symbolically shows how a transgressor strives to convey respect for the victim and the pain caused while attempting to restore the balance of a fractured relationship (Mu & Bobcel, 2019). In any type of relationship or even in a workplace, this may look like someone apologizing for making a joke at the expense of another, whether it was intended to inflict harm or not (Mu & Bobcel, 2019). An apology can be a critical step in initiating the reconciliation process.

Sometimes an apology is made simply because it is the quick way to solve a problem. In a situation where people may be working closely with others or someone’s presence reaches a large audience, after an offense is made, many feel it is easiest to apologize quickly to diffuse a tense environment and reaffirm one's own self‐image as a good or moral person (Mu & Bobcel, 2019). We see many examples of this type of apology in the news media today. For example, in 2017 celebrity and publicly identified feminist Lena Dunham contested the sexual harassment allegations made by a woman of color merely weeks after condemning Hollywood’s rape culture (Dunne, 2020). Dunham faced heavy backlash for not supporting the victim and using her white celebrity privilege to marginalize the experience of women of color. Realizing the damage her insensitive comments caused to women of color and victims of sexual violence, Dunham publicly apologized and promised to use the opportunity for growth (Dunne, 2020). While we must be careful to recognize when apologies are made purely to further one’s own personal platform, it is important to acknowledge mistakes made and the attempted efforts to reconcile them. In this case, while restoring her position as a public figure, Dunham’s apology opened a dialogue for victims of sexual abuse and women of color to share their stories and address the reality of feminism in the public sphere (Dunne, 2020). This is one of many examples where public officials and celebrities use their platforms to show remorse for a misdeed, correct the wrongdoing, and grow from the experience while demonstrating the ability to apologize to the public.

Lastly, fear of sanctions or concern for penalty significantly motivates apologies. In the enormous realm of possible transgressions, sanctions, or punishment for one’s crime may vary from imprisonment to termination of employment to public shaming.

No matter the reason for apology, it is typically understood by the transgressor that apologizing will correct a wrongdoing and the moral implications of their misdeed will be no more (Mu & Bobcel, 2019). While this may be appropriate for nonviolent interpersonal conflict, the nature of an apology in relation to serious intractable transgression is far more complex than any simple apology can mend and eventually hope to reconcile. In the case of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we see a prime example of perpetrators coming forward with details of their crimes with the expectation that they will be forgiven and receive amnesty for their atrocities (Bass, 2009; Hayner, 2010.) Fearful of retributive justice, someone guilty of crime may even apologize in hopes to achieve a lesser punishment, but the motive and the outcome is the same: apologizing in fear of repercussions is likely to negate feelings of forgiveness and hinder steps toward reconciliation (Mu & Bobcel, 2019).

Nature of Apology

Even more important than the action of apologizing is the delivery of an apology. Whatever the reason for apology, if it is hollow and lacking substance, it will likely not be received with forgiveness (Cárdenas et al., 2015; Gaertner, 2011; Mu & Bobcel, 2019). In Mea Culpa, Nicholas Tavuchis (1991) outlines his theoretical approach to the nature of an apology and explains that although an apology cannot undo what has been done, it can have the "power to rehabilitate the individual and restore social harmony" if it can evoke the faculty of forgiveness. Tavuchis (1991) emphasizes that the nature of an apology requires us to plead mea culpa (through my fault) and restore social order through making a reparation of social bonds in the form of apology. Simply, he defends the notion that apologies must produce actions and words that speak louder than someone proclaiming, “I am sorry.” The nature of a true apology actively and physically shows the victim that the offender is full of remorse.

When we consider reconciliation described by Lederach (1997) as a “Meeting Place” we see how an apology can contribute to the restorative justice required to connect peace and mercy. As a moral form of reparations, apologies offer a more crucial approach to reconciliation because it contends with emotion in rigorous and intuitive ways (Gaertner, 2011; Hatch, 2006; Tavuchis, 1991). Like reconciliation, a true and genuine apology is a process. Rather than the single action of saying “I’m sorry” and expecting progress, Tavuchis (1991) explains that an apology is a delicate sequence of events between persons. His theory suggests that apologetic acts are interactive because the offender must elicit forgiveness from the offended. There must be a valued bond between offender and offended to achieve a true apology and evoke feelings of forgiveness that transforms emotion and restores bonds. Of course, there are times when a victim does not want to forgive and reconcile, even after genuine attempts from the perpetrator. Shame often accompanies feelings of remorse, both in victim and perpetrator, which is why many individuals choose anger and hatred over apology and forgiveness (Tavuchis, 1991). A victim does not have the responsibility or duty to accept a transgressor’s apology, but in these cases, a transgressor can only show true remorse and respectfully accept the outcome of their apology.

How to Meaningfully Apologize

The idea of making an apology may seem simple. One must acknowledge wrongdoing, take responsibility for their action, sincerely express regret, and promise the offence will not reoccur (Cárdenas et al., 2015; Gaertner, 2011; Tavuchis, 1991). Though the pattern for apologizing seems simple, we must recognize how each transgression has its own set of nuances that must be treated individually. In fact, there is no generic formula for an apology that automatically results in a victim granting forgiveness (Hatch, 2006). Instead, an offender must put themselves at the mercy of the offended when delivering their apology because after all, not all apologies are received with forgiveness.

Mea Culpa proposes that apology is set apart from excuses, defenses, and justifications that cover and hide the offender, shift responsibility away from oneself, distance transgressor from victim, and undermines the bond between those involved in the apologetic act (Tavuchis, 1991). A real apology involves risk; it leaves open the possibility for repair by alleviating the shame of the offender and acknowledging the pain of the offended (Gaertner, 2011; Mitchell, 2014; Tavuchis, 1991). Reconciliation through apology can only happen if a perpetrator shows a clear sense of remorse and fully accepts responsibility for their actions, including the chance of not being forgiven. It is often human nature to repress feelings of guilt, anxiety, and shame for the sake of appearing rational, however, crucial to an effective apology is making these feelings intensely present to the victim (Gaertner, 2011; Tavuchis, 1991). Though apologizing is a verbal admission of guilt and regret, humans can convey deeper suffering through their body language (Gaertner, 2011; Mitchell, 2014; Tavuchis, 1991). Crying, trembling, choking on words, and other forms of showing physical grief expressed with sincerity can create a bond between offender and offended and allow both to empathize with each other while initiating reconciliatory discourse (Gaertner, 2011; Tavuchis, 1991). A sincere apology in its humblest form abandons all attempts at justification for past actions and while showing remorse, simply admits wrongdoing. Apologizing without detectable emotion and with no supporting evidence for regret comes across as a sham, hollow and disingenuous.

Equally as phony as an apology with no emotion is an apology with no action. Restorative justice requires restoration of respect to victims which entails replacing what was taken and (in cases where this is not possible) providing compensation for the offense that occurred (Hatch, 2006; Mitchell, 2014). When thinking of apology as an interactive social transaction, we can recognize the crucial exchange of power that comes from restoring the material harms incurred due to a transgression. Restoration not only for material gains, but for respect and humanity to the offended; and in the case of serious transgressions, begins to rebalance the social order and initiates restoration of harmony between groups, making forgiveness and reconciliation possible (Hatch, 2006). In many cases, loss cannot be replaced, in which it is critical to show remorse in an apology and offer reparative actions for the victim’s well-being including a promise that the offending events will not occur again (Hatch, 2006; Mitchell, 2014).

Formal apologies can take place interpersonally, and on occasion, even publicly to large groups of people. It is important to note that while group apology, or “apology from the Many to the Many,” constitutes its own set of problems, they can be a meaningful step towards wide-scale reconciliation (Hatch, 2006). The difficulty tied to representative apologies lies in the inherent struggle to express personal regret while speaking for a collective group in an official capacity. Collective apologies must answer the questions regarding who has the right to apologize on behalf of another and to whom does that apology extend (Hatch, 2006). Making something public that is intended to be personal can be overwhelmingly difficult, emphasizing the necessity of evoking emotion throughout an apology.

What This Looks Like

Perhaps one of the most salient conflicts in the U.S. is the public discourse on racial reconciliation. Racial divides in America have been a point of contention since before the U.S. became a country and have lasted well past the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When U.S. Representative Tony Hall proposed an official congressional apology for slavery in 1997 and again in 1999, he was met with fervent opposition by politicians and citizens alike (Hatch, 2006). Many individuals argued that paying monetary reparations to African Americans was unfair because not all white Americans had ancestors who were slave owners and not all black people were descendants of slaves. Despite the backlash received by his proposal, Hall went on to deliver an official apology for slavery and the protracted effects African Americans face every day because of his belief of the inequality and discrimination tied to race (Hatch, 2006). Although Hall’s apology was not endorsed by the American government, he spoke in the capacity of a U.S. Representative and his apology was acknowledged to some degree, in reflecting the implicit collective backing of the nation (Hatch, 2006). Hall declared his remorse for slavery “as a person and a citizen of my country and a US Congressman,’’ demonstrating his apology captures the feelings of many who also experience remorse for American history (Hatch, 2006).

Even more, addressing the nature of his apology in a public and unofficial manner rather than private and legitimate made Hall’s intention for his apology clear. Although he did not have the full support of the government in backing his claims for historical regret, his desire to give an honest apology despite his circumstances opened the door to heal discord by uniting diverse groups and reaching towards grace that enables restoration without retribution (Hatch, 2006). Hall’s powerful apology did just this; not in the way he argued his apology but, in his character, and creation of ethos during delivery. During his speech, Hall conveyed humility and empathy, creating an authentic expression of regret for the way his actions have affected communities of color, the oppression African Americans have faced since emancipation, and the institution of slavery on American land (Hatch, 2006). Rather than making a case for a white blanket apology, Hall apologizes for himself without even asking for forgiveness. Acknowledging his viewpoint as a white man in a powerful position, Hall claimed he is no expert on the topics of race or slavery, but a simple man trying to learn about suffering on a level he will never understand (Hatch, 2006). Hall expressed personal regret by his intentional choice of words during his apology speech, but more importantly in the spontaneous emotion he shows throughout the delivery of his message. He clearly showed that he is apologizing because events of the past were wrong, not because he expects forgiveness or even expects reconciliation to be easier because of his apology. He simply apologized to outstretch his hand and open dialogue for healing on behalf of many in the white community (Hatch, 2006).

Hall took the nature of his apology seriously. It is evident that the need to apologize weighed heavily on his heart and he intended to take action to begin the restoration of divided communities. At the same conference where Hall delivered his heartfelt apology, U.S. Senator James Inhofe attempted a similar plea for forgiveness but instead delivered a lackluster and ill prepared speech claiming it was African Americans religious duty to forgive while also condemning native Africans for their role in supporting the slave trade (Hatch, 2006). Inhofe used emotional language claiming great “tragedy” in the treatment of African Americans and his attitude of “grief” in asking for forgiveness, yet he delivered his speech with no detection of emotion (Hatch, 2006). Both content and delivery of his speech lacked any type of connection to the feelings of those he was trying to empathize with. In short, Inhofe’s apology did not achieve the interactive element of apology that Hall’s did. He failed to make a connection with his audience and effectively hindered dialogue between groups seeking reconciliation. Hall’s apology was filled with emotion and demonstrated the necessary qualities of an apology outlined in this paper to take the first steps towards reconciliation.  


Forgiveness articulates the need and desire to let go of pain and begin again not only for victims, but for perpetrators as well (Gaertner, 2011; Lederach, 1997; Mitchell, 2014; Mu & Bobocel, 2019; Tavuchis, 1991). Forgiveness is an interpersonal outcome, and a goal, that allows victims and transgressors to communicate their desire to reconcile and, in some cases, live and work among each other (Mitchell, 2014). When a victim of an offense hears the offender apologize sincerely in a way that acknowledges their pain and suffering, a sense of personal healing takes place (Mitchell, 2014). Victims undergo an intrapsychic process that allows them to release negative thoughts and emotions and increase empathy for the offender, more easily allowing themselves to forgive (Mu & Bobocel, 2019). In many cases, after receiving forgiveness, the offender can be reintegrated into society, reflecting the restoration of a relationship to a functional state (Mu & Bobocel, 2019; Tavuchis, 1991).

Despite the nature of forgiveness to elicit intra and interpersonal healing, the act of forgiving can still be extremely difficult, any many choose to not forgive at all. According to psychologist Everett Worthington, humans demonstrate three main types of forgiveness: hollow, decision-based, and emotional (Gaertner, 2011). When apologies lack substance and are laced with justification for the offense committed, offenders are usually shown hollow forgiveness, if any at all. Hollow forgiveness means almost nothing, it is offered in resignation when the offended has nothing left to give or when they are berated to forgive (Gaertner, 2011). Hollow forgiveness does little to promote reconciliation and typically leads to further conflict in the future. More complex is decision-based forgiveness which “is defined as the cognitive letting go of resentment and bitterness and need for vengeance. However, it is not always the end of emotional pain and hurt” (Gaertner, 2011). Decision-based forgiveness is the actual extending of one’s broken heart to the perpetrator of harm with the intent to restore what was lost, though the feelings attached to the wrongdoing are still present. Intentional forgiveness is the attempt by victim to “let go” and heal. Often following the steps taken to offer decision-based forgiveness is emotional forgiveness. Emotional based forgiveness signals a victim’s ability to overcome physical and emotional reactions to seeing or thinking about their perpetrator and even open space to build a relationship based on trust (Gaertner, 2011). Forgiveness comes to those who apologize not just because they have the right words, but because it is the right thing to do. Granting forgiveness is an intentional decision made by those who have been wronged but seek to restore harmony and peace through reconciliation.


Reconciliation is unachievable through mercy and forgiveness alone (Lederach, 1997). Rather, truth through apology coupled with restorative justice through forgiveness create a sense of healing and peace between victim and transgressor in conflict. After an offense takes place, transgressors can either step forward in humility and wholeheartedly plead forgiveness or, apologize through feeble attempts to justify their actions. Reconciliation can only take place if genuine apology that bares emotion and remorse for an offender’s action is offered freely to the victim of the offense. Shallow apologies only bandage wounds that need deeper healing and elicit true feelings of intentional and emotional forgiveness. In the case where apologies are not offered or where victims do not accept and withhold forgiveness, reconciliation may still be possible, though the conditions to achieve it will require significantly more work. Forgiveness has the power to heal both victim and transgressor, but only if an apology is made that evokes the sorrow and shame of wrongdoing. Only then can relationships, communities, and even nations begin the intricate process and hard work of reconciliation.


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Metagraphic permission: by Sandphin. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sasha_feather/4864480987. CC BY 2.0.