Last month we explored how to forgive when issues just seem to keep popping up. A related topic is how to apologize. Many people think they know how to apologize, but they do not in fact recognize that merely stating the words, “I apologize,” or “I am sorry,” is an incomplete apology. These words begin to recognize that our words or actions may have hurt someone, but they don’t go far enough in seeking to repair a broken relationship; they leave the other person in the ambiguous position of not knowing what they are being asked to forgive.
So, what are the steps to forming and making a good apology? The first step is self-reflection upon what act or words we think were offensive or damaging to the relationship. This might sound like, “I am sorry for hitting you,” or “I am sorry for saying, “You are fat.” But the next step in making an effective apology is determining why we did it; what we were hoping to gain by our action. For example, I may have hit someone because I wanted to intimidate them into doing what I wanted. Or I may have called someone a name or commented upon their physique because I was trying to make myself feel better and cover over my insecurity at another’s expense. The third step is trying to determine how our words or actions affected the person or people involved. We must begin to put ourselves in their shoes and understand the pain that has been caused. Going back to our examples, maybe we think that the person we hit was physically hurt and the one we spoke poorly to was demeaned. So, when we go to apologize, our words should sound something like, “I am sorry for hitting you. I did it because I was hoping to intimidate you into doing what I wanted, and I bet my actions caused you physical pain. Would you forgive me for these things?” Or maybe it would be, “I am sorry for calling you fat. I was trying to cover over my insecurity at your expense. And I bet it felt very demeaning. Would you forgive me for these things?” Such an apology goes much deeper and gives more specificity to the recipient as well as forcing the person in wrong to move deeper into their own growth and transformation.
Now you might think that is enough and that is a great apology. You might even just want someone who has recently hurt you to get that far and you would be thrilled. But there is one more step in making a good apology. The final step in making an apology that is efficacious and restorative is to ask the person you hurt, “Are there other things I need to apologize for or other ways that my actions or words hurt you?” When we ask this question, we are recognizing that there may be greater pain caused than we imagine, and we are giving the other person an opportunity to share their pain so that we can deal with that too. Unfortunately, too many people don’t ask this final question, or if they do, they simply say, “Would you forgive me for this too?” But this is to short-circuit the apology process. When we learn how our actions have hurt another, we need to take the time to reflect upon our actions and the reasons why these actions or results didn’t come to our thoughts already. We need to search our own hearts and minds and then when we are truly remorseful for these additional actions or effects, then we need to return and apologize more fully.
As I have learned to practice this fuller, deeper kind of apology, I can attest to its ability to humble and soften the heart. God has used it to restore relationships, deepen my self-awareness for how I have hurt others and more specifically, He has opened my eyes to ways that my words and actions have hurt others when I didn’t even realize it. These 4 steps will change your relationships and transform you as you practice them. In summary, a good apology:
1) Names the words/actions you did,
2) Determines why you did it,
3) Reflects upon how your words/actions likely affected the other person, and
4) Asks if there are more words/actions or effects for which you need to apologize.