Why is it that our prisons are full, countries and groups are forever waging war, and wherever we go, we are exposed to mistreatment? Is it because we were made from clay, and like pottery, we are fragile and imperfect? No matter how magnificent a ceramic work of art is, it remains delicate and must be handled with care. Are we any different? Won’t a harsh word, a critical look, or angry shove shatter the person it’s directed at?
Because of our imperfections, we occasionally say and do hurtful things. That’s why the two most important words are “I apologize.” True, an apology cannot undo the harm already done, but at least it can restore the dignity of the victim.
Some are fearful of apologizing, believing it to be a sign of weakness. They don’t want to appear submissive or hand over power to another. But when they committed their hurtful acts, weren’t they aggressive, and didn’t they usurp the power of the victim? So, it is only fitting that they reverse roles by sincerely expressing their sorrow for acting inappropriately.
When one offends someone, they’ve done the wrong thing; not to apologize is to refuse to do the right thing and compound the offense. Refusing to apologize is not a sign of strength but weakness. After all, one who refuses to say they’re sorry acts out of fear, but one who admits they were wrong and asks for forgiveness acts out of courage.
What do you do if your apology is rejected? Respect the right of the victim to do so. Yet, if your misconduct was not exceptionally grave and your apology was sincere, their refusal to accept it makes them equally guilty, for now they are being hurtful. At such a time, don’t perpetuate the problem by expressing anger. Rather, acknowledge that you’ve arrived at this point because of your own misconduct, accept the humiliation, forgive the person you offended, and move on.
Ironically, our misconduct can act as a blessing in disguise, for it is an opportunity to awaken to our faults, express remorse, and change our ways by repenting. It is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Remember, however, that this opportunity came about at the expense of another, so don’t forget the pain you inflicted and do everything in your power to eliminate it.
Both Jesus and Muhammad (570?~632 AD) spoke highly about repentance. Christ said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Similarly, Muhammad taught, “A sincere repenter of faults is like him who has committed none.” An apology, then, can be an important first step in the process of repentance. I refer to it as a process because repentance is not about FEELING sorry or SAYING, “Sorry!” But it is about DOING something about it; it is about making amends, making up for the harm already done. We can offend someone in the blink of an eye and apologize just as quickly, but making up for it can take time, so be prepared to invest that time.
Reasons for and Benefits of Apologizing:
1. Justice and fairness demand that we apologize any time we hurt others.
2. It is an opportunity to grow more spiritual by practicing humility. It is also an opportunity to develop, courage, honesty, and fairness.
3. It is a gift we offer our victim, for by showing them they are worthy of an apology, we are offering them respect and restoring the esteem we took away by the offense.
4. It can heal damaged relationships, for by apologizing, you are expressing that the relationship is important to you and you want to make amends. Victims are in pain and apologies are a balm or salve that can ease or end that pain. If you’ve done something wrong, change your role from a transgressor to a healer. For as Gilbert K. Chesterton wrote, “The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.”
5. When you recognize and accept your weaknesses, you’ll be better able to do the same for others, which is important because people are imperfect, mistakes will be made, and apologies will have to be accepted to restore harmony.
6. We allow our victim to grow spiritually by offering the gift of forgiveness to us.
7. By accepting responsibility and showing respect for the injured party, we may actually strengthen the relationship.
8. By recognizing that we have acted inappropriately, we are beginning to act appropriately and mend our ways.
9. By making up for our misconduct, we will be free from remorse, regret, guilt, and unhappiness. Instead of being ashamed of our behavior, we will become proud of it. When you make the effort to right a wrong, you reap joy, and when you neglect to do so, you harvest regret. So, apologize and experience joy instead of regret.
10. Ugly caterpillars change into beautiful butterflies or moths. Similarly, our hideous transgressions can bear beautiful fruit. An apology may result in a family reconciliation, for example.
11. Isn’t the purpose of life growth, unfoldment, and improvement? In other words, aren’t we supposed to be better today than we were yesterday? How can we improve without apologizing for our wrongdoings?
12. As a tree develops, it produces more and more limbs, branches, and leaves. If a tree has a large number of leaves, it can collect a great deal of energy from the sun. This results in a large, strong tree. Our branches, limbs, and leaves are relationships. We need them to survive and grow strong. When we treat others badly, we sever relationships (cut branches) and weaken ourselves. We need to apologize to mend the damage.
A further point is so important, it deserves its own paragraph. Apologies play a crucial role in family life. Parents need to treat their children with dignity and apologize when they are wrong. Likewise, children need to treat their parents with respect and say they are sorry when they misbehave. But how can children do so unless they learn from the example of their parents? Parents that are constantly squabbling set a poor example. Husbands and wives must beware of taking their mate for granted. Being married is no excuse for treating your partner unfairly and rudely. On the contrary, no one is more worthy of respect and appreciation than your spouse, so if you occasionally slip up, apologize as quickly as possible and make amends. Apologies and forgiveness, like love and trust, begin with a decision, so make a decision today to never take your spouse or children for granted. If you commit to them, they will commit to you.
The Nine-Step Apology Process:
1. Apologize quickly because you do not know how soon it will be too late.
2. Admit what you did.
3. Express your sorrow.
4. Be sincere by speaking from the heart and feeling the victim’s pain.
5. Ask for forgiveness. Ask for another chance to make up for what you did. Explain that you’ve learned from your mistake, and will not repeat the offense. Wait for their answer. You restore their dignity by giving them the power to determine the outcome of the situation.
6. Give your victim the opportunity to vent their feelings.
7. Make up for the harm you’ve done by taking corrective action, offering compensation, or making restitution.
8. Learn from the experience. For as Robert South (1634~1716) has aptly written, “True repentance has a double aspect; it looks upon things past with a weeping eye, and upon the future with a watchful eye.”
9. If your victim accepts your apology, accept their pardon with gratitude. Let them know how important they are to you in your life, explaining that you do not want to damage the relationship.
In summary, before apologizing, you must understand how your victims feel. They feel PAIN because they discovered how vulnerable they are. They feel ANGER because they were robbed of the security of a friendship. They feel MISTRUST because they were betrayed.
Now that you know how they feel, you must take appropriate action. Begin by expressing REMORSE. Apologize for the pain, anger, and loss of trust that you have caused. Express CONTRITION by offering to make up for the harm that you have done. Ask them what they would like you to do. Demonstrate your SINCERITY by changing your behavior. For very serious offenses, it may take a long time before you regain their trust. Let them know you understand this and accept it.
We have seen how our missteps, mistakes, and misbehaviors can prove to be a valuable opportunity to become a better person. Nevertheless, it remains true that the greatest gift we can offer others is to lead a life that doesn’t need any apologies. Although it is hardly likely that any of us can reach that ideal, we must cling to it to limit the damage we cause.
1. Don’t ruin your apology with an excuse. Accept responsibility and admit you were wrong. Never say something like, “I’m sorry, but…” As soon as you start offering excuses for your misbehavior, you trivialize your victim’s pain, hurting them even more. Also avoid expressions like “I’m sorry if you were offended” or “I’m sorry you feel that way” as it blames the victim. Rather, accept full responsibility by saying something like, “I’m sorry for what I did.” Here’s another example. Don’t say: “I’m sorry if I was hurtful” or “I’m sorry you were hurt.” Rather, say: “I’m sorry I was hurtful” or “I’m sorry I hurt you.”
2. When I was a young man, some people made fun of me by calling me “baldy.” The fact that I was bald never bothered me, so their words never hurt me, but I found their intention painful. I couldn’t understand why they would want to hurt me. I tell this story to help you understand what your victim is experiencing. Your inappropriate words or behavior may not appear serious, but your intention and willingness to hurt another is very painful for the victim. So, besides making up for your incorrect behavior, be sure to address your incorrect intention by developing a change of heart. As long as you wish others well, not harm, you’ll have nothing to apologize for.
3. If you were holding a sharp object, tripped, and accidentally cut your friend, regardless of your innocence, your friend would be hurt and would need an apology and first aid. Similarly, you could unintentionally hurt a friend by something you say or do. Should that happen, don’t focus on your innocence, but on your friend’s pain, so apologize.
4. Avoid apologizing by mail, phone, or email, unless it is impossible to do so in person.
5. After a terrible blunder, saying “Please forgive me” isn’t good enough. For that is not an apology, but merely step #5 of the nine-step apology process.
6. Your victim may need a cooling off period before they can accept your apology. If they refuse to accept your apology, be gracious and say something like, “I understand how you feel. Thank you for listening. And if you ever decide to give me a second chance, I’ll be happy to make up for the harm I have done to you.”
7. If your apology is accepted, live up to your word. That is, carry out the restitution and promises you made to restore your relationship to its previous state.
As author Margaret Lee Runbeck (1905~1956) wrote, “Apology is a lovely perfume; it can transform the clumsiest moment into a gracious gift.” Yes, it’s true, after hurting someone we love, we can often make the relationship stronger and more intimate by offering a sincere and heartfelt apology.
THE FIVE LANGUAGES OF APOLOGY: How to Experience Healing in all Your Relationships by Gary D. Chapman, Jennifer Thomas, and Jennifer Thomas.
On Apology by Aaron Lazare M.D.