We all know the power of apology. Words carefully crafted into a caring confession of contriteness can graft life to a grievously wounded heart. But the inverse is true as well. A careless apology stands to cause as much harm as the original offense (or more) by magnifying in the hurt mind the first offense and layering upon it a sense of continued insult. So I want to lay out a recipe for apology. Just like cooking, if you don’t follow this recipe well, you’re dish might disappoint. But also like cooking, there is a certain element of love and art that must go into the recipe too. Even though I think these steps are crucial for a good apology, I don’t want to motivate by fear. Relationships are strong and resilient if they have a good foundation, and in my experience the mutual love that permeates good relationships will cover any of your shortcomings when apologizing. But because of that love, I think it’s important to do your best in righting wrongs when they occur. So I will briefly lay out the six steps and then write a short example apology below.
1 – Acknowledgement of full, complete responsibility. This is the first and foremost ingredient to an effective apology. Without this you might as well avoid the conversation all together. You must take full responsibility for every single possible detail or else you will undermine your entire attempt to apologize. Personally speaking I recently had to apologize for a situation in which I committed much harm, and at first I was concerned that I couldn’t take full responsibility because I was convinced that the blame was shared. I forced myself to push this thought aside and I took the full blame anyways, and it breathed life into an otherwise dead situation. And I found myself shortly after no longer caring about the details of what blame belonged where. I was more concerned with the restored relationships.
2 – Expressing regret over the offense. It isn’t enough for someone to see that you’re sorry you hurt them, they also want to know you’re sorry over the action itself. When I hurt my wife I do feel regret for hurting her, but I also feel regret that I am still the person to do the kind of thing that caused the hurt, and so I apologize for both aspects.
3 – Empathy Empathy Empathy. The most important aspect to effective communication is making sure the other person feels heard and understood. This is true for any apology attempt as well. If you nail five of these six steps and the empathy statement is the portion you leave out, you’re sabotaging your chances for real restoration. You need to think very carefully about how your offense made the other person feel.
4 – Demonstrate a desire for the person. You don’t want forgiveness, you want your friend. There is nothing wrong with “Please forgive me” and I won’t encourage you to not say it. But I’m trying to emphasize what I think trumps a desire for a person’s forgiveness, which is a desire to have the person. I don’t want my wife to forgive me because I want forgiveness. I want my wife to forgive me because I want my wife. It’s a subtle but important difference that you would do well to make clear (even if you include “please forgive me”).
5 – Acknowledging your behavior violated expectations for the relationship. Being intentional about personalizing the situation to just you and the offended party is important. It’s fine to say “I realize it’s wrong to lie”, but it’s even better to say, “There is no place for lying in this relationship”. If you commit a hurt against 100 people you better have 100 unique apologies crafted for each individual. The moment someone senses even a hint of a generic and repeated line or two, you’ve undermined yourself. If you lied to me, I want to hear that you lied to ME. I also want to hear you acknowledge how much I personally hate lying, etc etc.
6 – A genuine commitment to action. I stress the word commitment. If there is any one thing I have repeatedly and near fatally done wrong over the past few years it has been constantly saying “I wont do this again” only to do it again, and again, and again. This is a sure path to eroding whatever bedrock the relationship sits upon until you are left with next to nothing. So do not commit to action you can’t follow through on.
An Example Apology Using the Six Steps
“I want to start by saying that this entire thing is my fault. I recognize I share the blame with no one. If at any time I alluded otherwise, I was mistaken and I want to be clear that I alone am responsible for what happened. I’m so sorry that I did this, both because it hurt you and because it was a terrible thing to do. I should never have done such a thoughtless thing. I knew better and I utterly messed up. I can only imagine how this made you feel. If I had this thing done to me I would be so hurt and angry and wounded, I’m not sure I would have place for forgiveness in my heart. This is a terrible pain I’ve caused you and I’m very sorry for putting you through this. I just want you back in my life. You are important to me. But I know what I did violated your trust in me. There is no place for this kind of behavior in our relationship and I realize that. I want to make amends in any way that is necessary in order for us to find restoration, and I want to make clear that I will do everything in my power to never do this thing again. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
I can’t imagine a serious offense being amended with anything shorter then that. And good lord it ought to be five times longer. Obviously if you stepped on someones toe you can probably get by with “oops, sorry!”.
What I mean is the bigger the offense, the more time you ought to put into carefully crafting your apology. There should be no rambling. No confusion. No muddying waters. Be clear, be intentional and be genuine. And most of all, do not expect or demand forgiveness. Your only expectation should be on yourself to effectively deliver a meaningful apology. Let the other person receive it however they choose to.
I used the recipe analogy because I felt it worked well for imagining the structure of an apology, but I do not desire to communicate that relationships themselves are a matter of recipe. They are dynamic and complex and emotional affairs. Put the work into apologizing well because you love the person, not because you read online that you better do these things or else! Anyways, I wish you the best of luck and I hope this served as a decent starting point for you to begin thinking through your own apology.