Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

I’ve been listening to Elton John’s ‘Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’ this week. And smiling because, I find it easy to say sorry. Most of the time I don’t give much thought to it; it’s a figure of speech and sometimes a way of avoiding a conversation or a confrontation and moving on.

But Elton is right, really saying sorry requires a lot more courage. A courage I found really moving when I listened to two women saying sorry to one another last week: the Chief Executive of an organisation and her Deputy. After almost a year in which they struggled to work together, they decided to seek support. In their first ‘mediation’ meeting, they apologised to each other for not being their best selves. In their second meeting, which took place after the Chief Executive had found another job, they were able to acknowledge how they had hurt one another, and say sorry. Even though they have no future together, it seemed like their separate futures, in different organisations, would be the better for their courage in facing up to what had gone wrong between them. All three us left hopeful.

The author, and journalist, Rebecca Solnit has helped me to see how hope is grounded in our messy reality:

‘It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.’[1]

Those two women understood the ‘complexities and uncertainties’, and created an opening for themselves, by taking responsibility for their part in causing damage.

I thought about them when I listened to John Swinney, apologising, late but not too late, to the young people of Scotland for his part in the hurt caused to them through the exam regrading. And I thought about them when the headteacher of our daughter’s school was unable to say sorry for the situation in which she finds herself, partly because of their inability to support her. I thought about them again when I heard a story from a nurse about how she finally told her manager how let down and unsupported she had felt, and was heard.

I wondered whether saying sorry is a call to action in itself. For those two women, the implicit promise in their apology was that they would try to do better next time. For John Swinney it meant sorting out the exam mess he had a hand in creating. If our headteacher had said it maybe he would have felt impelled to do something better for our daughter or someone’s else child.

It takes some courage for a person to say sorry, to really acknowledge the hurt she has caused someone else.  It takes some courage for a leader, a manager, a teacher, a doctor or a social worker to say sorry on behalf of their organisation because it means not only acknowledging personal responsibility but also organisational responsibility for damage, hurt and failure. And we can be very unforgiving, both individually and collectively. But without an admission of failure and a willingness to be accountable for that, perhaps we are doing more than denying the possibility of forgiveness. Perhaps we are denying the possibility of hope and the call to action that comes with that, condemning ourselves and our organisations to the sense of stuckness that seems to pervade many of our institutions.  Without the freedom to get it wrong, it turns out that there is no freedom to get it right.