An Authentic Apology


They must be the six most difficult words in the English language. It's not the pronunciation that stumps us; it's our egos. There isn't one of them you can't spell. And some people certainly do better with them than others. Are you ready for me to lay them out for you? To explore how well you do with them?

Here are the six troublesome words: "I was wrong. I am sorry."

Charles Utley of San Diego, California, underwent cancer surgery about four years ago. In the days that followed, he noticed a lump on his backside. He tried to ignore it and kept waiting for it to go away. Within a couple of weeks, it not only hadn't healed but was oozing fluid. So tests were ordered.

A surgical sponge had been left in Utley's body! As reported in The Wall Street Journal, his surgeon did a most unusual thing. He accepted responsibility for the mistake, looked Utley in the face, and apologized. As opposed to a routine deny-and-defend strategy in such cases, the doctor told him how sorry he was.

"No matter how this happened, I was the surgeon in charge," he said. "I was the captain of the ship. I was responsible. And I apologize for this." Instead of getting an attorney and suing, the 50-year-old victim chose to settle the matter privately. "They honored me as a human being," he said.

The newspaper article pointed out that other doctors and hospitals are finding out that "an authentically offered apology" does wonders in heading off lawsuits. One attorney who represents victims in medical malpractice cases was quoted as saying his job is harder when physicians own up to their mistakes. Some medical schools including Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in my home city of Nashville now have mandatory courses in communicating errors to patients and families of patients and offering appropriate apologies.

Patients can accept that doctors are fallible. What enrages them and sends them to court is someone's denial of the obvious.

I'm guessing the same thing would work in your business or professional life. In your family. With friends who have been offended and alienated. I know it is the key to spiritual life, for the Bible teaches, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (James 5:16).

Are you thinking it is too risky a strategy? Maybe so. But honoring the intelligence, feelings, and dignity of another person just seems intuitively right.

Keep those six words handy. They can make a difference that matters.

Rubel Shelly whcoc@edge.net

Rubel Shelly has preached for the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville since 1978. During that time, he has also taught at David Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is the author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian. He is married to the former Myra Shappley, and they are the parents of three children: Mrs. David (Michelle) Arms, Tim, and Tom.

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