OPINION: We must adopt a restorative approach to conflict by apologizing differently

Two people apologizing to each other with a jury in the background
(Selena Lopez • The Student Life)

When was the last time you apologized to someone? What feelings arose as a result, and what was your goal when you reached out?

The way that we view conflict is inherently negative. As a result, our most common methods for conflict resolution are punitive. We want to right wrongs by assigning punishment; to designate blame to an individual and find resolution through retribution. 

This way of thinking, based on the value of individualism, is divisive and fear-based. It utilizes punishment as the primary deterrent for conflict, thus instituting a negative perception of the process. If we take steps together to undo this outlook and instead view conflict resolution as collaborative and restorative, we can encourage a community that is relationship-based and focused on addressing impact rather than wrongdoing. 

The first step towards this culture of restorative justice is to restructure how we apologize, acknowledging that intention does not matter when impact does not match and taking responsibility to heal interpersonal and community relationships.

Conflict naturally makes us uncomfortable, and apologizing is an ordinary step in resolving this conflict. However, our apologies are often motivated by emotions that do not contribute to genuine resolution. Feelings of discomfort, guilt and blame strip our apologies of their sincerity and effectiveness. 

We seek the relief that an apology will bring for ourselves; the hope that we will no longer feel at fault once we have acknowledged our mistake and “moved on.” This approach centers the apology around ourselves — it is an attempt at absolving oneself, not repairing the impact of our actions.

This does not mean that we are being intentionally insincere or misleading when we apologize; we simply have not been conditioned to address conflict from an alternate perspective, one that does not center on ourselves. We fear making mistakes; we fear being called bad people; we fear punishment when we “mess up.”

This basis of fear is a massive deterrent to growth — if we are unable to make mistakes and want to avoid punishment, we will be unwilling to take risks or express ourselves. For these reasons, we struggle with authentic apologies, because acknowledging the harm we have caused “threatens our self-image as an essentially good person,” according to the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice.

The first step to changing this outlook is asking fundamentally different questions when conflict arises. Rather than asking ourselves what rules were broken and how the offender should be punished, we should instead consider what happened, why it happened, who was impacted and in which ways and how it can be made right. Approaching conflict with this mindset focuses on healing the impact of what has occurred because we care about each other, not because we demand retribution. We will not cause harm then, because we want to maintain good relationships within our community. 

With this in mind, we must approach apologizing differently, understanding that it doesn’t matter whether or not you intended to cause harm. Apologizing is about addressing your impact, not your intention. Acknowledge what you did and the effect that it had. It is okay to be uncomfortable doing this. Sit in that discomfort and, rather than using it to avoid accountability, utilize it as a tool for growth as you move forward in your relationship with this person. 

Avoid using words like “but” or “if” when you apologize; phrases like “I’m sorry if I hurt you” rather than “that” or “I’m sorry but … ” are methods of self-preservation. While it may feel natural to justify yourself, reflect again on the fact that it’s not about you, but rather healing the damage that you have caused. If it feels important to address your intention, maintain your ownership of the impact by not making excuses. 

Commit to healing the situation as much as possible. The best way to demonstrate your sincerity is to change your behavior. Apologizing is an opportunity to grow; be genuinely thankful for the moment. Don’t place a burden on whomever you are apologizing to and demand that they give you a way to make it up to them; offer a space for this to be shared, but do not expect it. It is not their responsibility to tell you how to make it right. Understand that your apology is not an invitation back into somebody’s life — you should apologize out of a genuine desire to make a situation right. 

Restructuring how we apologize and how we approach conflict contributes to a culture of mutual understanding and growth — one where we can have a positive, rather than fearful, attitude towards justice. This is not an easy ideological shift; it requires an intentional commitment and willingness to help each other grow, and explore different perspectives or outcomes than we are used to. 

If we commit to establishing these community standards together at the Claremont Colleges, we will create an environment that uplifts itself. If we deeply value the relationships that we have with each other, this is a way to prove it. 

Stella Favaro PO ’23 is a philosophy, politics and economics major from Sonoma, California. Some of her favorite things are extra hot coffee and going on early morning walks.

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