How to Apologize Well


As many of you know I write and present workshops and retreats on a number of subjects.  One of my more popular retreats has to do with forgiveness. Forgiveness is a powerful psychological and spiritual tool.  It can free you from the anger and hurt you feel in the present because of something that happened in the past.  It’s probably one of the most useful psychological and spiritual practices anyone can develop to live a flourishing and healthy life.  While there’s a great deal written about how to forgive people, there isn’t much written about how to ask for forgiveness.  Asking for forgiveness is an important step toward reconciliation, the potential outcome of the forgiveness process.  While forgiveness stands on its own and is completely separate from reconciliation, the two are closely related.  However, we can forgive someone even if they never ask for forgiveness.  You can’t reconcile in a healthy way with someone if he or she never asks for forgiveness.  Therefore, if we’ve hurt someone and desire to repair the relationship we need to ask for forgiveness.

If you’re reading this and thinking you need to ask someone to forgive you for something you’ve done that’s impacting your relationship with that person here are some things to consider:

First, make sure you’re clearly communicating you’re sorry.  If the apology comes across as insincere or a tactic for dropping the subject you’re arguing about it will never lead to forgiveness.  You want to be sure you’re clearly communicating regret for a harm you committed.  In fact, if you really aren’t experiencing regret you may want to look deep into your own heart and make sure you’re not simply apologizing to get past a difficult experience.  Be sincere, really think about how you’re going to communicate that sincere regret, and speak from the heart.

Secondly, show empathy.  Make sure the person you’ve upset understands you know how they feel.  Be intentional in your effort to understand their feelings.  This isn’t easy because often we struggle to understand “why” the other person is upset.  You must empathize and communicate that empathy in a sincere way.  Try and put yourself in their shoes and understand what it might be like to feel the way they feel.  Think of times when you’ve been hurt by other people and use that as a way to empathize with them.  You have to try and experience what’s going on in their mind to apologize in an empathetic way.  When you empathize with the other person you’re communicating that his or her emotions are valid, important, and matter to you.  Don’t ignore the power of empathy in your apology.

Thirdly, Avoid being overly “heady” when apologizing.  Rationalized apologies come across as lectures and distanced soliloquies never reaching into the other person’s heart.  You’ve hurt someone and that person is feeling emotional pain.  You can never reason something like that away.  Simply tell the person you’re sorry and avoid justifying your actions as if you’re on trial.

Fourth, ask for forgiveness.  If you merely say “I’m sorry I hurt you” but never ask for forgiveness the hidden message is “I’m sorry I hurt you and it’s not really important if you care.” That might not be how you really feel but it’s something the missing words “Will you forgive me” imply.  Remember, forgiveness is a gift the other person extends to you in good faith and love.  It releases you from a debt caused by an injury you inflicted.  If you don’t ask for the gift of forgiveness you may miss out on an opportunity to repair the relationship.  That’s always something we should grieve.  We were meant to live in relationships with other people and when they cannot be reconciled something about being human is always negatively impacted.

These four tips can go a long way in helping you communicate regret, sorrow, and the desire to reconnect with someone important in your life.  Too often we let our own pain and anger get in the way of reconnecting with someone we love who offers us a healthy and loving relationship.  If you want that reconnection, apologize with sincerity and love and ask with all humility for forgiveness.  You may find whatever caused you and the other person to argue can be something that also allows your relationship to grow and deepen. You just need to talk about it in a way that shows you understand each other, love each other, and care enough about one another to work it out together.



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