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The Forgiveness Protocol: How to Apologize When You Have Hurt or Harmed Another

Much violence occurs under the rubric of revenge or justice.

David and I have been studying war and violence since 1979, and David has studied aggression since the early 1970s. During the process of this work, especially our early work on nuclear war and deterrence theory, we became aware that much violence occurs under the rubric of revenge or justice.

Wars are described as "just," and capital punishment is also a form of "justice" in the eyes of some people and nations. Usually, revenge, retaliation, and just wars are forms of getting even after a person, group, or nation has been injured by another person, group, or nation. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is taken as an axiom, although far too often violence escalates, into an amputation for an eye, or a life for a tooth. While self-defense is almost universally accepted as a legitimate reason for violence, getting even is accepted as equally valid by many people and nations.

In our latest book, Payback! Why we Retaliate, Redirect Aggression, and Take Revenge, we analyze the biology, ethology, sociology, and history of getting even, and in the last chapter, we describe a series of alternatives. I am going to skip ahead and talk about one of those alternatives, because I think it might be the most practical pathway to stop the cycle of violence and passing pain from person to person. You have my permission to use this in any format, at any time.

What do you do if you find out that you have hurt or harmed somebody, and you want to revive the relationship or even improve it? How do you make a complete, complex, and healing apology that addresses the injured party's pain and possible need for retaliation?

I formulated a recipe called the Forgiveness Protocol, that I gave to my patients, particularly parents who had harmed their children, or couples wounded by adultery. It is based somewhat on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Jewish prayers for forgiveness on the High Holy Days, and a prayer before going to sleep in the Orthodox Jewish tradition called the Bedtime Shema.

Here it is:

The Forgiveness Protocol

  1. Say you are sorry.
  2. Make an inventory of how your behavior might have hurt or harmed someone. Ask that person if the list is complete, and correct your list to reflect a complete account of the costs of your behavior.
  3. Say you are sorry again. Be prepared to say this many times.
  4. Tell the other person exactly how you understand the costs of your behavior, and allow the other person to vent, elaborate, or reiterate as needed so that the other person really feels heard.
  5. Clarify with the other person if the behavior was a simple accident, a mistake, a mistaken calculation of costs and benefits, or a deliberate deed. This part is not easy and takes time and attention. "Thoughtlessness" is one of the most common sources of problems, and may reflect recurrent self-centeredness. Intentional acts of revenge or malice also require great insight to acknowledge.
  6. Humbly ask forgiveness. Describe your inner state of guilt, remorse, sadness, grief, anger or whatever.
  7. Describe what you have learned from the incident. Show insight and awareness, or yourself and your mistake, and the other person and his/her pain.
  8. List what you will do or change to avoid a repetition of the incident.
  9. Clarify what penalties to expect if you make a mistake, or transgress again. Discuss what each of you will do to avoid repetition.
  10. Say you are sorry, yet again.

Too many people believe that simply saying sorry one time should suffice, if we have hurt somebody's feelings. However, the legal code is more clear: If you hurt somebody's car, you have to pay the damages. It can be difficult to itemize emotional costs, but to heal, it must be done.

In effect, the Forgiveness Protocol offloads the pain and suffering of a victim back onto the perpetrator, by making the perpetrator humble, thoughtful, and indebted, in other words, subordinated, with a need to pay back the injury with considerable amends.

I will say more about Payback! in future posts. However, I am going on a very long trip soon, and I want the Forgiveness Protocol available to the world right now, so that it is in the public domain, no matter the outcome of the trip.

Take it, try it. Put it up on your refrigerator. Teach it to your children. Since we all make dreadful mistakes sometimes, it is important to know how to make a cogent apology. It is one of the pathways to peace, personally and globally.