The Lost Art of Apology

All of us have been hurt at one time or another by someone, and an insincere or insufficient apology leaves us even more discouraged. Our world overflows with public and private examples of poor apologies in politics, sports, business, church, and personal arenas.  Media critics demonstrate their own inability to distinguish a poor apology from a sincere one when they comment about publicly prominent apologies. Much has been written about forgiveness–what it means and what it doesn’t mean, who “deserves” it, how to achieve it, and even the health benefits of forgiving. Much less has been said about good apologies, and that is the focus of this post.

To be clear, we can forgive offenders even if we never receive an apology for an offense (or offenses), or if we receive an insufficient apology.  But research–and common sense and experience–tell us that an effective, sincere apology makes the forgiveness process easier for the offended party.  And an apology can help the offender to be more aware of the harm their behavior has caused, focus on changing their behavior, and possibly seek to make amends or reconcile with those they have hurt.

Hurts come in uncountable ways, sizes, and nuances, but all sincere apologies can follow 3 steps. Although these are simple steps, it can take practice to do them well.

  1. Acknowledge the offense and the pain/hurt it caused
  • Own the offense or your part in the offense. Tell the offended person(s) and take responsibility for your actions or words. Be specific when identifying and stating the offense(s). Use “I” statements when describing what you did or didn’t do that caused the offense.
  • Do not excuse, shift the blame, or use the word “but”. (Your big “but” will get in the way.)
  • Avoid explanations. These are usually excuses.
  • Use feeling words to describe the pain/hurt that the offended person feels or felt. (If you don’t know what they feel, ask them and reflect back what they tell you.)
  1. Apologize
  • State your regret and sorrow for the offense or for your part of the offense.
  • Use words such as: “I’m sorry”, “I was wrong”, “I hurt you”, “that wasn’t right for me to do”, “that was my fault”, or “I accept the responsibility for . . .”
  • If you sincerely had a good motive for your action, you can briefly state your intention, but keep it to one sentence. Regardless, do not excuse your behavior or your offensive words.
  • Do not blame the other person for being offended; don’t say, “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
  1. Ask for forgiveness (do not demand it).
  • State how you will change, what you are working on so you will not repeat the offense, and how you will make amends if that is possible. Be specific and honest–do not promise something you cannot or will not do or change.
  • Ask if there is anything the offended person needs from you. Accept what you can do and are willing to do (what is reasonably in your power to do).
  • Do not demand a “reciprocal apology” from the person you offended.
  • Ask for forgiveness (do not demand it). Allow time for the offended person to heal, to work through the forgiveness process, and to rebuild trust if they are willing. Forgiveness is both a decision and a process, and it often takes some time.

Here are some other tips regarding apologies:

  • If you feel you are being blamed for things you did not do or had no control over:
    • Accept the part that you did control, and apologize for that (no matter how small).
    • Affirm and empathize with the offended person’s feelings regardless of whether you caused all of them.
  • An effective apology should be proportionate to the offense. A pound of offense should inspire a pound of apology; a teaspoon offense needs only a short, sincere apology. But be careful about underestimating your offense. It is acceptable, over time, to repeat an apology for major offenses that take time to forgive.
  • Apologies do not guarantee forgiveness or reconciliation, but they can make those processes easier. Your apology does not erase the offense.

Think of a time when a sincere apology was given to you and how it helped you to heal and forgive. Also, recognize that confession and repentance are part of our response for our offenses toward God. It is, therefore, fitting that we make similar responses of contrition to those fellow humans whom we have offended and who are created in His image. As Jesus said, “When you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

-Daniel McHugh, MA, LPC, NCC