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What Does It Mean to "Extend an Olive Branch"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term "to extend an olive branch" means to make an offer of peace or reconciliation. This term has Biblical origins, coming from the section of the Old Testament that deals with the flood; the sign that the flood is over is an olive branch brought back to the ark by a dove. Olive branches were also symbols of peace in Ancient Greece and Rome, and they continue to be used in various works of art that are meant to suggest peace, from murals to patches.

Some people have suggested that the olive was a very deliberate and well-considered choice as a metaphor for peace, because olive trees famously take years to mature. War is typically very hard on the trees because people cannot take the time to nurture them and plant new ones. Therefore, the offer of an olive branch would suggest that someone is tired of war, whether it be an actual war or a falling out between friends.

In Ancient Greek and Roman times, people would offer literal olive branches. In Rome, for example, defeated armies traditionally carried olive branches to indicate that they were surrendering, and the Greeks incorporated them into weddings and other ceremonies. In the modern era, the branch is usually metaphorical, rather than literal, not least because the plants can be a bit difficult to obtain.

Many people agree that peace negotiations at all levels of society are a good idea. Between nations, obviously, it is important to extend an olive branch to ensure mutual safety and to help the world run more smoothly. This act can also be important on a personal level, as resolving conflict and learning to get along with others is viewed as an important life skill in many cultures.

At some point in their lives, many people will be advised to extend an olive branch to settle a dispute or resolve an issue. Some people believe that it takes an immense amount of courage to take this action, as it often comes with an admission of wrongdoing and regret. When an olive branch is offered with ulterior motives, such as trying to get someone else to admit that he or she was wrong, the attempt at reconciliation often goes awry, and this is a very important thing to remember. People who genuinely believe that someone else has wronged them should either wait for that person to make the first move toward peace or find a way to forgive them so that there can be an attempt at genuine reconciliation.

Where Does the Phrase Extend an Olive Branch Come From?

The phrase "extend an olive branch" has a long history but its exact origins depend on who you ask. Many Christians believe the origin is in The Bible. In The Bible, specifically in the Book of Genesis, a dove brought an olive branch back to Noah's Ark after the flood was over. Other people say they can trace the phrase "extend an olive branch" back to Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt.

Regardless of its historical origination, the English idiom itself is today based on how olives and olive trees handle war. War often means that new olive trees go unplanted. The longer a war spans, the harder it is on the olive population. Thus, when someone extends an olive branch, they're saying they no longer want war or to fight.

How To Extend an Olive Branch

There are a number of ways to extend an olive branch in a tough relationship, but first, you'll want to consider the situation and make a plan from there.

Take Stock of the Situation

Deciding whether to reach out and if so, how to do it, depends on several factors. For example, reaching out after a minor disagreement with a friend is much different than trying to talk to an ex-romantic partner, and that is often different from reaching out to a long-estranged parent.

Ask yourself how bad the falling out was, who it was with, whether you truly think the other person will want to hear from you, and what you want to say if you do reach out. It's also important to consider what you hope to gain from the interaction and how you'll handle it if the person isn't receptive to your olive branch.

Consider Whether It May Help To Have a Mediator

Although many people consider having a friend talk to someone first to be juvenile, the reality is that sometimes this type of mediation is necessary. Imagine your falling out is with a friend and the two of you have many mutual friends. If you aren't sure how your former friend will react to you reaching out, it may help to have a mutual friend ask if the friend is open to repairing the relationship.

If you are giving a gift as part of your olive branch, it can be helpful to have a third party deliver it. Whether it's flowers or something yummy to eat, a gift and short card will give the other party space to ponder the situation without feeling pressured to have an immediate conversation. Situations such as this often turn out better than if you were to simply show up on someone's doorstep.

Keep Things Short and To the Point

Avoid over-the-top apologies that go on forever. Too often, it's easy for these to be unsuccessful because they don't seem sincere. Something that is short, sincere, and doesn't try to place blame on the other person is what's best. Take responsibility for what your part was in the situation and apologize for the hurt I caused your friend. Say "I'm sorry that I did [blank] and hurt your feelings. I can't change what happened, but I didn't mean to hurt you. In the future, I will [blank] to avoid this happening again." This tiny template is easy to remember, straight to the point and shows the person you're talking to that you're serious about making amends.

What To Do if Someone Doesn't Accept Your Olive Branch

The reality is that some people will not want to take the olive branch you extend to them. Sometimes, the falling out is simply too painful for them to get over. Other times, they have moved on in life and just don't think there is room for reconciliation. Regardless of why someone decides not to accept your apology, it is important to move on with grace and dignity.

Chances are you've run the falling out past other friends, family members, or a romantic partner. Don't be afraid to rely on your support system if you're feeling down because someone won't accept your apology. If the situation leaves you particularly distraught, it may even be a good idea to seek the help of a therapist.

If you need to, you might consider removing traces of the person from your phone and social media accounts. Remove pictures, delete their phone numbers, and avoid "running into them" on the internet by blocking their accounts when possible. You may even take a complete break from social media for your own mental health.

Finally, look toward the future. You have family and friends who love you now, and you are sure to meet more friends as you move through life. The same can be said for romantic partners. Instead of dwelling on the past, put yourself out there to experience your future.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By grathealer — On Apr 14, 2015

The key to forgiveness is to extend the forgiveness olive branch to the person who has harmed you. Sometimes people are not as strong spiritually as you and have lower self esteem. If you have high self esteem you will not be diminished by reaching out.

The person you are reaching out to may not be able to apologize, and may be so fearful of rejection. They may feel that being sorry means they are lessened. The story of the Prodigal Son is instructional. The father was strong and could reach out. His son was too weak to say anything but Father please let me be your servant.

The father's inner strength allowed him to reach out and bring his son back into the fold of love. Only the strong have the self esteem to reach out and forgive.

By anon267269 — On May 09, 2012

It all depends on what level I want to be in. If I want to be at a lower level, I wait for others to repent and come to me. If I want to be at a higher level, I forgive them even though they don't repent. And even more, I extend friendship to them no matter what.

The true challenge comes when I face those who seem to be hard to get along with in person. Sometimes they have a good reason to cause trouble, sometimes they simply want to control me in their way of doing things. When I'm able to get along with them, I have succeeded and moved to a higher level. Even when I don't agree with them, I can either keep quiet or express myself in a calm manner and avoid getting emotionally involved.

Just be polite and keep the discussion impersonal, and know when to end the conversation before it goes uncontrolled. A friendly, outgoing, funny personality also helps in getting along with others.

By anon237390 — On Dec 29, 2011

I disagree as far as waiting for the person who has wronged you for them to make the contact first. I have been waiting for five years for my brother to do this and he has not.

I am going to make the first move and extend an olive branch -- today, in fact. Life is too short, as they say, and someone needs to break the ice. If he does not accept this offer, then I guess I know then and can move on with my life. Hope this helps someone.

By anon191034 — On Jun 27, 2011

I agree wholeheartedly with what you have written, Anne!

By cmsmith10 — On Aug 23, 2010

That was a great article and the comment from anon32906 was also great.

By anon32906 — On May 28, 2009

Your statement below is not in line with God's Truth because it is not what the Scriptures tell us to do when we have conflict with someone. I feel before you advise others you need to be sure what you are saying is the Truth so that it will be of help to others and not cause more problems. Although we are to forgive others we don't wait for them to reach out to us first, we seek to make reconciliation, yes they may not accept it and reject us but we just don't pretend it didn't happen and people can't accept our forgiveness unless they are sorry for what they have done in the first place. So yes we can forgive but for true reconciliation there needs to be repentance by those who have hurt us. If we have hurt them then we to need to ask forgiveness but as often is the case it starts with a misunderstanding and this needs to be resolved from the start.

Kind regards Anne Stocks

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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