Life Hope & Truth

From the March/April 2017 issue of Discern Magazine

Six Essential Elements of an Effective Apology

Some people are famous for their non-apology apologies. But the only way to repair relationships is to learn the art of a sincere, effective apology.

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“Come on, I said I’m sorry. Can we just go back to normal now? Could you cut me some slack? Nobody’s perfect. Can’t we just forget about it and move on?”

“No, no and no. Just because you said the words I’m sorry doesn’t make things instantly better. I cannot just forget it. Frankly, I’m still very upset with you.”

Chances are, you can relate to the above dialogue, either as the one who’s uttered the ineffective “I’m sorry,” or as the as other party who wants more than a quick apology.

The truth is, one of the hardest things we can do in any relationship is to apologize—to admit we were wrong or made a mistake, accept responsibility for our actions, and promise to change our ways. We might try to get by with a fake, faint or halfhearted apology by just blurting out the words “I’m sorry,” but doing so can do more harm than good.

Why it’s so hard

So why is it so difficult to apologize? Most often our pride gets in the way; it takes a spirit of humility to admit our faults, which goes against human nature. We may also be under the misconception that apologizing makes us look weak or incompetent, or admits defeat. We might be embarrassed about what happened and want to sweep things under the rug.

Maybe the other person did something wrong as well, and we’re too angry at him or her to apologize for our part in the situation. Perhaps we want to apologize, but simply can’t find the right words.

Essential for healthy relationships

Yet if we want to maintain healthy relationships, it’s essential that we apologize when we’ve been wrong or hurtful—no matter if we did it accidentally or intentionally, and even if we were only partially to blame.

Done correctly, an apology is the first step in correcting wrongdoings, opening up opportunities for constructive discussions and regaining trust. The relationship can then move forward and may even become stronger.

The Bible confirms the importance of apologies in repairing damaged relationships. Jesus instructs us to make things right with those we’ve offended (Matthew 5:23-24). The apostle Paul said, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). Being at peace may require apologies.

Obviously, not every misstep or blunder requires a huge apology. If you’re a few minutes late when meeting a friend for lunch, simply saying “I’m sorry” is usually all that’s needed.

But for bigger offenses, a full apology may be warranted. To be effective, it should contain the following important ingredients:

1. A sincere expression of regret.

The first ingredient may be obvious: You need to say “I’m sorry” and mean it. Let the offended person know you acknowledge, understand and regret the hurt you caused. This could be as simple as saying: “I’m so sorry I blurted out your secret at the party. I know I put you in an awkward situation, and I feel terrible about it.”

To do this properly, you need to understand exactly what you did that was wrong. This may require you to take some time before your apology to prayerfully reflect on what happened. Ask God to help you see the situation clearly and have a contrite mind-set. This will help you deliver your apology in a humble, heartfelt and sincere manner.

On the other hand, if you just blurt out the first things that come to mind or are too vague about what you did (for example, just saying “I’m sorry for my behavior,” without acknowledging any details about the offense), your apology is likely to sound phony, and you may come across as though you’re just saying whatever you have to in order to keep peace.

2. An acknowledgement of responsibility.

Take full responsibility for what happened without trying to justify, minimize, explain or excuse your behavior. Openly admit you were at fault. This means saying the words I was wrong. In particular, be careful not to push the blame on the one to whom you’re apologizing.

In contrast with Saul, David accepted full responsibility for his sin after the Bathsheba incident: “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:3). David readily admitted his guilt, as we all should be willing to do.

Of course, there may be valid reasons that explain why you did what you did (for example, “I felt like I was being goaded,” “I was really stressed,” “I was in a hurry”). But don’t bring up these things now. If these factors are important, they will likely come out during the course of the apology discussion. But let the other person go there first, not you.

It’s also important not to use conditional language: “I’m sorry if I …” or “I’m sorry, but you. …” By using “if” or “but,” you are in effect evading responsibility for causing the offense, and trying to put the offended party on a guilt trip for being upset. Saying “I’m sorry if you’re offended,” is basically saying, “You’re just waaaay too sensitive.” A better option is to state, “I’m sorry I offended you.” This takes ownership for the offense.

3. Attentive listening.

While you are the one “making” the apology, it’s also important to let the offended party talk about what happened—to share his or her feelings, vent, unload, explain, cry, etc. Listen carefully to what the other person has to say and try to understand his or her perspectives and point of view. Acknowledge what he or she tells you by making statements like, “I understand why you’re upset” and “I see how I let you down.”

If we want to maintain healthy relationships, it’s essential that we apologize when we’ve been wrong or hurtful—no matter if we did it accidentally or intentionally, and even if we were only partially to blame.In order to truly forgive you, the injured party wants to know that you grasp the full ramifications of your actions and how it made him or her feel. Some of what you are told may make you feel uncomfortable or awkward, but resist the temptation to get defensive. Instead, take the feedback as constructive criticism, and learn from it and use it to motivate you to make necessary changes. Ultimately your apology should be about giving the offended party a chance to be heard and learning from it—not about your own need to be right.

4. A willingness to make amends.

Offer to remedy the situation and make things right. The Bible instructs us to make restitution to those we have wronged. This may include returning what belongs to another and even adding to it. A good example of this being put into practice is in Luke 19:8. Here we read about a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus, who offered to provide financial compensation to any he defrauded.

In our lives today, restitution could also involve monetary reimbursement (such as, reimbursing a friend for tickets to a show you didn’t attend, or paying for damage you did to something you borrowed). It could even mean reparation of emotional injuries (for example, setting the record straight if you spread lies about someone).

Of course, there may not always be obvious, tangible remedies. Maybe you weren’t there for your friend to support her when she was going through a difficult time in her life. In that case, you might just say, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” Making amends is not always a matter of making literal compensation as much as reassuring others that you have their best interests in mind.

5. Commitment to change.

A sincere and earnest apology includes a resolve to not repeat the offense. True, we all have shortcomings, and we will make mistakes. But we should always be striving to overcome and do better. Show the injured party you are repentant and determined to make a change in your character. It doesn’t matter what the flaw is. It could be a temper problem or that you continually forget social engagements. Admit it, and assure the offended person that you want to change.

This includes stating what you will do differently in the future. Depending on the severity of the offense, this may mean implementing a plan (such as for how to deal better with stress or thinking before you speak) or getting help through counseling. Promising you will work hard to not make the same mistake again and having a plan to do so lets others know you value them and want them in your future. An apology loses its sincerity if you have no intention to work on your faults.

6. A request for forgiveness.

Having done all of the above, you can then ask for forgiveness. A simple “Will you forgive me?” will usually suffice. This places the offended party in the driver’s seat. You are acknowledging that the relationship has been damaged and can’t move forward without forgiveness, and you are asking the one who was hurt to take the next step in the healing process.

It is now the offended party’s decision whether or not to accept your apology. If you have shown genuine remorse, humility, empathy and a willingness to change and make things right, chances are good the other party will forgive you.

But even then, it may take some time for the one offended to completely let go of hurt feelings. Trust will have to be rebuilt. This is especially true with serious infractions. Reconciliation doesn’t happen overnight.

Realize there are no guarantees. Even after you’ve offered a sincere apology, reconciliation may not be possible. The damage done to the relationship may be so severe that it cannot be salvaged. Or the other person may simply choose not to forgive. Regardless, you have done the right thing by apologizing.

If you’ve taken the time to reflect on what caused the rift in your relationship, you’ve owned up to what you did, you’ve examined your attitude, you’ve prayed and sought God’s guidance in the situation, and you’re seeking His help in overcoming whatever shortcomings got you into this mess, then no doubt it’s been a growth experience for you.

The fact is, apologizing is not a sign of weakness, but a means to exercise and build courage and strength of character. That’s true if your apology is accepted—and even if it isn’t.

Learn more about what the Bible says about apologies and forgiveness in the Life, Hope & Truth articles “How to Apologize” and “How to Forgive.”

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