Accidental Harm

“It was an accident!”

Parents everywhere have heard those words at times when they knew full well no accident happened.  The desire to shift blame seems almost instinctual. Siblings blame each other and only-children concoct imaginary friends to take the fall.

Because this tendency is so strong, I skirt around it. I don’t argue with someone else about what they really meant; I can make highly educated guesses based on past behavior or context, but I can’t see into their mind.

Instead I focus on impact and responsibility.  Something can have unintended consequences we didn’t intend, but still be our responsibility. “You may not have meant to hurt me when you jumped on the couch where I’m sitting, but I hurt.”

I think this approach can work with adults sometimes too. If intent isn’t magic, if harm prevention and reduction is the purpose in confronting someone, sometimes intent can be overlooked. “Accident isn’t an excuse” as I tell my child.

That doesn’t mean intent is meaningless.  It means it’s not always the best focus. Sometimes motive matters a lot – but that’s evident after. Someone who hurts me accidentally is less likely to repeat the behavior later.

I believe a proper apology consists of three parts:
1. I’m sorry.
2. I am responsible.
3. I won’t do it again.

I draw a distinction between blame or fault and responsibility.  We can be responsible for harm without malice. Accepting responsibility lets the person I’ve harmed feel better, in a way that swearing I didn’t mean to won’t. 

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