A poem dating back to the 14th century was tacked on the wall of my elementary school in Brooklyn.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.
An apology, like a nail, is a seemingly small yet vital tool. Without it, things fall apart.
In my work as a psychologist, I see marriages fail and family members stop speaking to one another because someone will not apologize, or the apology is offered in a way that only deepens the injury rather than widening the path for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Even good relationships suffer quietly beneath the surface when a hurt or insult goes unrepaired. For the want of a heartfelt apology, a kingdom of trust and affection may be lost
“I’m sorry,” are the two most healing words in the English language. When they are spoken as part of a wholehearted apology, these words are the greatest gift we can give to the person we have hurt.
Our heartfelt apology can help free the hurt person from life-draining anger, bitterness, and pain. It validates their sense of reality by affirming that, yes, their feelings make sense, we get it, and we take full responsibility for our words and actions (or our failure to speak or act).
As I explain in Why Won’t You Apologize, a heartfelt apology allows the hurt party the space to explore the possibilities of healing instead of just struggling to make sense of it all.
Getting it right is difficult and it’s worth it. The courage to apologize and the wisdom to do it wisely and well is at the heart of effective leadership, coupledom, parenting, friendship, personal integrity, and love.
It’s hard to imagine what matters more than that.