This is a skill that every civilized person should know. Inevitably we will encounter conflict, hurting and offending other people. God desires for us to be humble enough to apologize. A great sign of maturity is the willingness to apologize, and do it properly. Here are some guidelines, which I taught yesterday at Ben Shin’s Asian Church in American Society class. As we grow in the body of Christ, may we all learn to apologize, and do it quickly and appropriately.
- Try your best to know why the other person is hurt or angry.
This one sounds pretty simple, but I’m surprised how often misunderstandings and arguments come out of me not knowing what’s wrong with the situation. Listen to the other person. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Ask if they will let you try to reflect back what they’re saying to you, by saying something like “Let me see if I get what you’re saying…” If they agree, try to summarize what you think is going on, with something like “I did ____________, and it hurt you.” or “You’re angry with me because I ___________.” See how the person responds. As long as you’re not way off, they will likely revise your statement to make it fit more of what they feel.
- Never use words that invalidate their feelings.
Don’t say something that construes the feelings as their fault. For example, don’t say something like “You’re angry because YOU FEEL like I was selfish when I ________________.” Sticking in words like “you feel” or “you think” can often make the other person feel like you’re invalidating their feelings. Even if you’re innocent and you weren’t selfish, now is not the time to argue with a person’s feelings and to make them look irrational.
- Never be vague in your apology.
Be as specific as possible. Go to great lengths to make sure the person knows that you are apologizing for exactly why they’re angry and hurt. Something like “I’m sorry that I broke your favorite vase” is better than “Sorry I broke the vase.” Something like “I’m sorry that I was late when you really needed me to be on time” is better than “Sorry I’m late.” This avoids the angry comeback “What are you sorry for??”
It may help to add something like “You have every right to be angry with me.” or “I can understand why you were hurt.”
- Do not make excuses.
Don’t say things like “I’m sorry there was traffic and I was late” or “I was having a bad day, so I snapped at you.” Excuses may or may not be the real reason for your actions, but they don’t make the person feel better. Besides, they will probably think to themselves, “that’s no excuse. You should’ve left earlier” or “that’s no excuse. You still shouldn’t be mean to me.” An excuse basically blames something or someone else for your wrongdoing. You want the other person to forgive you, not to excuse you.
- NEVER, EVER use “IF” or “BUT” in your apology!!!
I can’t stress this one enough. Let’s look at each one individually.
The word “IF” invalidates someone’s feelings or tries to make them make-believe. NEVER say “I’m sorry if I hurt you” or “I’m sorry if you were offended.” There is no IF involved here. The person was definitely offended or hurt by you. NEVER use IF when apologizing. It makes your apology insincere and it makes their feelings look pretend or illegitimate. In fact, I would venture to say that an “if” makes it NOT an apology at all. I get even angrier when I hear someone say “IF” in their “apology” to me.
The word “BUT” is basically a finger-pointer. It’s not a real apology. NEVER say “I’m sorry, but you were being so stubborn!” That blames the other person for your wrongdoing. Definitely a no-no. Or “I’m sorry I was late, but there was traffic” — that’s basically an excuse, blaming something else for your action.
- Try to use “THAT I” in your apology.
Again, this goes back to being specific. Take responsibility for your actions. Say something like “I’m sorry that I ate your last cookie.” or “I’m sorry that I wasn’t available when you needed me most.” That’s specific and doesn’t include the bad words like “IF” or “BUT”. It places the blame solely on yourself, not on the other person or on other circumstances.
- Make a sincere effort to make the situation right.
If you can, fix what you “broke”. Be prepared to sacrifice to restore whatever the other person lost, whether it be possessions or reputation. Be thorough and specific. Do this as long as it depends on you. This is one of the keys to a sincere apology. Words are empty if they are not accompanied with action.
- Know that forgiveness is their choice, and do not expect it.
Don’t expect them to forgive you. You may ask for it if you feel like it’s an appropriate time. Emphasize that you don’t deserve forgiveness. “I don’t blame you for being angry with me.” Forgiveness is a gift. Remember that if you ask for it. “Will you please forgive me?”
- Make a sincere effort to change your ways.
If your relationship with this person is continuing, you can to ask them to help you with this. “Will you help me work on this? Next time I do this, can you let me know?” You’re not perfect. You’re probably going to mess up again. Asking for the other person’s help is a good way of promising an effort to change. They may say no, but at least they know that you want to change. It also helps them to know that they shouldn’t keep quiet if it happens again. Sometimes people may be tempted to avoid the conflict by just “not saying anything” next time you do something like this, but that is not healthy. Healthy relationships involve communication and reconciliation.