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The Art of the Apology

Nothing hurts more than needing an apology and not receiving it. There is an art to apologizing, and the best way validates the offended party, does not diminish the offense, expresses true remorse, is respectful. It listens and does not make excuses. It does not attempt to spread the blame, nor try to justify or rationalize the offense. There is a right way, and a wrong way, to give an apology. The right way can bring healing and a new start to a relationship. The wrong way not only doesn’t heal, but can actually make the situation worse.

Here are some pointers to tell the difference between the right way and the wrong way to apologize. I’ve delivered this talk “The Art of the Apology” several times in public places, and each time, people approach me afterward to say they never heard of this and had been doing it wrong and didn’t know why it wasn’t working. It’s easy to mess up!

  • Be in your own circle – accept full and total responsibility and ownership.

  • Stay in your circle – you have no control over whether someone accepts or rejects your apology; but you do have control over your own behavior and actions.

  • A true apology reflects regret, contrition, humility, willingness to listen to the offended party, repentance.

  • Repentance is a turning away from the offense, not justifying it. Allow the offense to stand alone; don’t coat it in excuses, justifications, reasons, or “buts”.

  • Tone is everything. What you say can be drowned in how you say it. Speak quietly, respectfully.

  • Do not ask anything of the offended party.

  • The best apology shows evidence of reformed behavior, not words.

  • Never apologize with words such as, “I’m sorry you got offended” or “I’m sorry you’re sensitive about this” – this only makes it worse by minimizing the effect on the other person. One of the surest ways to re-offend.

  • Only the offended party gets to say if they are offended or not, or if they “should have been” offended or not – not the offender.

  • The offender doesn’t get to set the conditions of an apology (such as on your time, at your convenience, at your comfort level, triangulated with your friends pulled in, etc).

  • Apologize in private. This gives seriousness and dignity to the situation.

  • Don’t defend – a deeply heartfelt, genuine apology does not set conditions, argue, defend itself.

  • If you really want to heal this offense and not recreate another one, ask questions of the offended party, such as - -

  • How I can I prove I am sorry? What can I do? (action, not words). And then do it.

  • Tell me how you are feeling. I want to make sure you have the opportunity to express how this made you feel because it’s important.

  • I am beginning to understand how you feel. What I did must have really hurt you.

  • I’m listening (and then listen. Do not defend yourself at this time).

  • Clarify and reflect back.

  • Don’t offer a generic, one-size-fits-all apology (“I’m sorry”). You are sorry….for what? The more specific you are, the more validating it is to the offended party

If you are the offended party, You have a responsibility to clearly and very specifically communicate you are offended and not expect offender to read your mind, guess, or try to figure it all out on their own. This is not the time to pout, behave passive-aggressively, childishly. This is a time for maturity and yes, that can be difficult when you’re very hurt or angry

  • “The best remedy for anger is delay”. Wait a beat. Or three.

  • When you communicate your grievance, do it calmly, and with as little emotionality as possible. Give facts and be very specific.

  • Ask for a resolution. Ask for what you want in polite but clear terms.

  • Keep your responses specific and focused. Do not be pulled into unrelated debates. Monitor your emotions continually; it is okay to take a pause to calm yourself and think.

  • Take your grievance to the offender privately. Don’t triangulate (pull others in to your side) – especially children. Give the benefit of the doubt; did that person really intentionally set out to offend you or was it a thoughtless, stupid remark? Sometimes people say incredibly stupid things and never actually intended to harm someone else. Are you exaggerating the damage?

  • Only if offense is not resolved privately do you take it to a higher authority. Be prepared to be questioned yourself and own any part you contributed. Be careful what you ask for because you’ve now brought others in to it. Be wise about who you bring in - are they objective? Godly? Do they have integrity? Is there a good probability they are going to be fair or will they triangulate? Do they seek healing or like the drama? Do you?

  • Keep social media out of it!

  • Are you minimizing or rationalizing the clear damage? If you are hurt, own it; don’t excuse it or minimize it (“people rarely treat you better than you treat yourself”….”we teach others how to treat us”).

  • Do not gossip or be passive-aggressive.

  • Own your feelings – whatever they are.

  • Have you done your own mirror work? Do you have a part to play in this?

  • Be respectful when offender genuinely apologizes – allow them vulnerability and dignity. Check your own behavior; are your pouting? Childish? Angry? About to say hurtful things? Don’t have a “sit-down” until you leave your own attitude at the door.

  • Thank them for apology and don’t open wound again. Once you accept the apology, it’s supposed to be done now…you don’t get the luxury of accepting it and still holding it over their head in the future.

  • “Forgive and forget” - we can forgive. We often can’t forget and you are not expected to forget. But use the experience as a sobering reminder and go forth wiser and humble and healed now.

  • Your forgiveness frees not only the offender, but importantly, it frees YOU. You can choose to be a victim or a victor. You can also choose to forgive – regardless if you ever received an apology or not.

  • You are never required to re-start or continue a relationship with this person if you don't trust or respect them. In this case, be civil but maintain clear boundaries. "The past is prologue".

  • Show grace – how many times have you needed forgiveness, whether from God or man? Sometimes people just do stupid, clumsy things. Can you accept that the offense might have been a stupid mistake and the offender realizes it and regrets it and has learned something from it?

  • If you cannot accept the apology at this time, you don’t have to. Clearly communicate this civilly. There is never a justification for abuse, yelling, name-calling, etc. You do have the right to not accept the apology but do not send a mixed message on this. It is okay to have a boundary where you say you aren’t ready “yet”. The “yet” word is powerful and gives you maneuverability and room and space. The offender needing and being ready to apologize is not an indication you are forced to be ready to accept or discuss it yet.

  • If you are unsure the apology is genuine or will effect lasting change, examine for evidence of changed behavior over time. Real evidence of repentance and changed behavior is demonstrated over time and by non-verbal (non-verbal is always more accurate than verbal).

  • If the offense is clear, the offender refuses to make restitution, refuses to apologize, refuses to accept responsibility, turns on you, then consider if this relationship is healthy enough for you. It may be about them, not about you, at this point.

  • Words don’t prove an apology. Changed behavior proves an apology.”

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