We are human. Thus, we are fallible. Sooner or later, we will make a mistake. Maybe that mistake will be an unintentional slight, stinging words, or an action more malevolently motivated.
When that happens, if we value relationships, we must apologize to bring reconciliation, to restore peace, and to continue to influence in a healthy manner. No one will be positively influenced by someone with whom they are in a damaged relationship.
But what does a proper apology look like? We’ve all received a half-hearted apology and as we are receiving it, we wonder, “Is this person truly sincere? Do they really realize the damage they have done?” Then we start to guess at the person’s motivation. “Are they simply trying to get me back in their corner?” “Do they really even care they offended me?”
Let’s look at how to offer a proper apology. This isn’t a simple formula that magically fixes damage. If used as such without genuine empathy for the hurt caused, it can actually do more damage than good. You have to get into the shoes of those you are giving the apology to before giving it.
The proper apology has four components.
- I’m sorry for …
- It was wrong because. …
- In the future I will …
- [Name], will you forgive me?
Let’s look at the importance of each in more detail.
1. I am sorry for …
The first step to any apology is to acknowledge the specific behavior or event that caused the damage. As a general rule, the more specifically you the details of the offense, the more the recipient of the apology realizes you are fully aware of what you have done.
We’ve all seen a TV sitcom like Everybody Loves Raymond where as soon as Ray’s wife brings up an issue, he starts saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” When she asks him, “For what?” he answers, “For anything I did wrong … anything at all.”
This generic type of apology carries little weight with the recipient. If the recipient starts saying, “It’s no big deal,” I’d advise stopping them and saying, “Yes, it is a big enough deal that I feel I need to give you a full apology.” Many people will tell you something isn’t a big deal merely because they dislike any kind of uncomfortable conversation or perceived conflict. This is the person that really DOES need to receive the full apology in order for them to not quietly sweep offenses under the rug.
2. It was wrong because …
This important piece of a proper apology goes one step deeper. By stating the reason that an action was wrong gives a deeper heart connection to the person offended.
This “because” statement allows the recipient to see that you truly have a sense of right and wrong. When we see that someone has a moral compass and where his/her True North is, we see that a foundation for trust exists. The apology is not merely a smokescreen to get back into good graces. It takes the emotional element felt by the party offended and says, in effect, you were right for feeling it because you were honestly wronged by me, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
This extra step is vital to a properly formatted apology.
3. In the future, I will …
The goal of an apology is not just forgiveness but reconciliation. Part of reconciliation is for the apology not only to address the past but also set expectations for the future. This declaration of future intent provides the recipient a measurable means of rebuilding trust. If the apologizing party does what they say they will do, then building blocks are laid down towards reconciliation. This coincides with the old counseling adage to trust behavior more than words.
4. [Name], Will you forgive me?
The name is important. Not because of a formulaic inclusion, but because there is power in a name. Eugene Peterson says, “To know a name is to know someone.” Before we care about performance, ability or productivity, we need to care about the person. To know a name fully means you know about that person’s story – that their mom has cancer, that their family just got a new pet, that their child is about to leave for college. This relationship first approach is key, as it is the anchor of trust, which is the rope that grants us permission to influence in the best possible manner.
The “will you forgive me” question goes further towards reconciliation. Incredible grace comes into being both from the apology receiver and apology giver. I advise you to include the phrase, “I am asking for honest forgiveness and completely understand if you need more time to ponder it. If you need more time, I am willing to give you as much time as you need.” As the offender, even if unintentionally, we have little right to demand a timetable for forgiveness. To provide a deadline actually says this apology is more about me feeling good about me than you feeling good about us.
Reflect on your relationships. Ask yourself consistently, “Is there anyone to whom I need to offer an apology?” To do so keeps relational channels open, prevents conflict from festering, and to offer an apology endears us because humility is attractive. Don’t delay an apology, but also don’t rush it. Make sure you can sincerely and properly offer it including the 4 elements we’ve discussed. The more you apologize, the easier it becomes. Try to apologize for NEW things, not continuing to offer the same apology for the same offenses to others.