It’s one thing to apologize for something you did, it’s a completely different thing to apologize effectively. Not all apologies are created equal.
So if you want to apologize in the most effective way possible, here are 5 tips to help you do that.
- Repent in Your Heart to God Before You Say Anything to the Person
If you have not actually accepted in your heart that you did something wrong and need to apologize, your apology will not feel authentic to the person you are speaking to. What we say flows from what is in our heart, so oftentimes even when we say something, if we do not mean it in our hearts the person will be able to sense this:
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)
For good or bad, our mouths reveal what is in our hearts. If you are truly sorry in your heart for what you’ve done, you will be better equipped to express this in words. If you are not truly sorry in your heart but you just want this person to stop being mad at you, your apology will not be nearly as effective.
The way you say something is just as important as what you say, and never is this truer than when it comes to apologizing. So really the first thing you need to do if you want to apologize well to a person is to first repent in your heart towards God.
Ultimately all sin is against God (Psalm 51:4). If you accept your sins and truly confess them to God first, the person you apologize to will sense the genuineness flowing from your heart.
- Be as Specific as Possible and Express How You Understand Why You Need to Apologize
Rather than saying, “I’m sorry for hurting your feelings,” it would be more effective to say, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings when I spoke harshly to you and accused you of showing up late on purpose.” The more specific you are the more the person will realize that you do take responsibility for the sins you committed.
If the person you hurt does not feel like you really understand why they are upset, they will find it harder to receive your apology. It’s kind of like someone erasing a financial debt without the person being helped knowing how much is being erased. For example: If you allow someone to not pay you back five dollars, that feels very different than allowing someone to not pay you back five thousand dollars.
If you want someone to forgive you and erase the debt you owe them, you can help them by expressing your understanding of the level of sacrifice they are making for you. If you are asking someone to forgive you of an affair, you should not approach them like you are asking them to forgive you for calling them a mean name. Both are bad and need to be apologized for, but having an affair is way worse, so you need to express how much you understand how wrong you were.
If you apologize for something in a way where it feels like you don’t think your sin was that bad, your apology will fall flat.
- Don’t Play on Words and Say Things Like, “I’m sorry I made you feel like I was mean to you.”
When it comes to apologizing effectively, don’t get cute. Just say what you are sorry for in the clearest way possible. Don’t give a long rambling speech that doesn’t really make sense but makes it feel like you are kind of saying it’s really not your fault but you will apologize anyway.
Don’t play on words and say things like, “I’m really sorry I made you feel like I spoke harshly to you.” Don’t say things like, “I’m really sorry you perceived me as being unloving towards you. That was not my intent.” If you spoke harshly, apologize for speaking harshly. If you did something unloving, apologize for being unloving.
Don’t play on words so you can say you apologize even though you really are not. Just own it. Lay it out there. Apologize and let the person forgive you. If you dance around truly apologizing you are sabotaging your efforts.
- Don’t Use the Word “But”
In addition to sneaky phrases that misplace blame away from yourself, avoid using the word “but” when you are apologizing. It really has no place if your sole intent is apologizing.
Examples of what not to do are, “You started the fight, but I am sorry for escalating it and yelling at you.” “I know what I did was wrong, and I am sorry for that, but I feel like anyone would have acted the same way that I did.” “I’m really sorry for ignoring you last night and giving you the cold shoulder, but I was just so tired I really couldn’t help myself.”
While these “but” statements might even be true, when you say them it undermines your apology. Adding a “but” is basically offering an excuse for your sin rather than an apology.
- Thank Them for Their Forgiveness and Truly Repent in Your Life
The last step to a good apology is to thank the person once they forgive you. If you apologize and the person forgives you but then you walk away like you just received something they owed you and that you deserved, this will undermine the reconciliation that just took place.
Just because God commands all Christians to forgive one another, Christians should not command each other to forgive one another. We need to ask for forgiveness and then receive it for the gift that it is. When you receive a gift, the only way to respond is with gratitude.
Apologize and then if the person forgives you receive it with humility and thankfulness rather than arrogance and entitlement.
In closing, don’t forget to pray about your apology before you deliver it. God alone can mend a wounded relationship. Invite him into the conversation you are going to have before you have it.