What Does It Look Like to Apologize Well—and Why Does It Matter?
From President Joe Biden doubling down on his decision to withdraw troops, to Govern Cuomo effectively denying any wrongdoing, to the Trump supporters who (still) refuse to believe that he lost the election, many of us can’t seem to make a clear, non-defensive apology. More often than not, it comes out as a non-apology apology: “You must have misunderstood my intentions,” a la Gov. Cuomo. (As if cupping an employee’s breast or making suggestive comments could ever have an altruistic meaning.)
The reasons why we struggle to get these words out are complicated. Admitting that we made a mistake can result in serious consequences. Like getting fired or sued. Or worse—losing social media followers.
Issuing an apology can also be equated with weakness, which, in our hyper-masculine culture, can be shameful, especially for men. Why would anyone willingly step into such a vulnerable space? As a result, we are a culture of dodgers, deniers, and dismissers. We don’t seem to know how to apologize or understand why it matters in all spheres of life: from marriage to parenting to world politics.
Here are some thoughts on how we could remedy this.
Be self-reflective. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (Matthew 5:23-24) “If you suddenly remember” implies that we should regularly set aside time to explore if we have hurt anyone. This should not lead to morose self-reflection or incessant apologizing. If you can’t get through the day without saying I’m sorry repeatedly, hold-off for twenty-four hours and try to determine if you actually did something wrong or are offering an olive branch preemptively as a way to avoid conflict. (This is not necessarily a bad thing but we don’t want to use an apology to spare us from the discomfort of conflict.)
Initiate. The responsibility is on you, the offender, to apologize. No waiting for the other person—or the investigative reporter—to bring up the offense.
Don’t procrastinate. When we put-off dealing with conflict or relational issues, it only serves to widen rifts. If you feel convicted about a wrong you committed in the distant past, same rules apply. There’s no statute of limitations here. If you remember, chances are the person you hurt does too.
When confronted, tell the truth. Quoting the apostle Paul: “Stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.” We lie because we fear the repercussions of honesty, including loss of respect and loss of trust. The truth always prevails and when it does, previous lies make it much more difficult to make amends.
Take full responsibility for your mistake. Young kids are brilliant at issuing non-apology apologies; “I’m sorry for giving you a bloody nose but you were being a jerk.” Remove the words if and but from your apology because they transfer responsibility from you to the offended. It doesn’t really matter if you didn’t mean it. You did or said it. Own it and don’t blame anyone else for your words or actions.
Words matters. We help the offended to forgive us when we specify our sins. Which would you prefer to hear: “I am sorry that I over-reacted and spoke harshly to you and the kids last night”? Or, “Sorry, but I don’t know why you’re so upset. It was just a little thing.” The second option is literally worse than silence.
Tone also matters. Watch this short clip from the Carol Burnett show and then avoid using that tone at all cost. (Start around the three minute mark.)
Whenever possible, make a face-to-face apology, with eye contact. Yes, it’s humiliating but that’s part of the point. The humiliation should help us to grow and give us pause about doing the same thing in the future. (See James 5:16.)
Don’t try to control the other person’s response. Allow them to express their hurt, anger, or disappointment. Seeing their reaction helps us to feel genuine remorse and hopefully, move toward empathy.
Work for reconciliation. For true reconciliation to happen, we must endeavor to change our hurtful or ignorant behaviors and attitudes. Ask the person you offended questions such as, “Is there anything I can do to make things right between us?” Not only will this help the offended party to believe your sincerity, but your relationship will most likely deepen. (Please note: if you are on the receiving end of an apology, that does not necessarily mean you should put yourself in harms way in the future. Setting good boundaries is always wise.)
An authentic, proactive apology has the power to diffuse anger, re-establish connection, and bring tremendous healing. In the end, isn’t that worth more than perpetuating the myth that we never make mistakes?
You can find more of my work—including information on my two books—and subscribe to my monthly newsletter over at my website: Dorothy Greco.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Her.meneutics Blog at Christianity Today. (Stock photo by By k-goldey from Shutterstock.)