I’ve spent some time blogging about forgiveness and how important it is for us and our relationships (Definition of Forgiveness, Benefits, Taking Action). If you have read those entries, you may recall that forgiveness and reconciliation are different. Forgiveness is a personal journey of removing feelings of hurt, anger, vengeance, etc. and replacing them with feelings such as empathy and compassion.
Reconciliation is about putting the pieces of the relationship back together. It requires people to work together in order to rebuild trust and goodwill. Whereas forgiveness is an individual process, reconciliation is a relational one. We are not obligated to reconcile if we forgive, but reconciliation does require forgiveness.
Apologies are a crucial step for reconciliation. It says to the other person “I get it. I know that I hurt you.” Hearing this helps people feel more confident about risking a relationship with you in the future. It’s an important step in rebuilding trust.
An effective apology contains a few important parts. In my work with clients, we talk about the following five components:
Speak for yourself and offer an apology for your actions. Do not place blame or offer excuses. Taking responsibility for your actions helps build trust. It says you’re aware of your actions and their impact. Use phrases like “I’m sorry” and “What I said was wrong. You don’t deserve that” Avoid phrases like “You made me mad” or “Well if you hadn’t have done that, I wouldn’t have said what I did.” Those statements are blaming and inaccurate. Even if you are mad at someone, no one else controls how you respond. That’s your responsibility.
Don’t tell the other person that they’re wrong or being dramatic. It is not up to you to define what is or isn’t hurtful to someone else. Instead, try to understand it. Also, be careful about focusing on the reason for your actions. Providing an explanation can be important, but use caution in your timing. Emphasizing your rationale over the apology is often seen as excuse-making. Here’s a simple rule to follow: don’t include the word “but” in your apology, i.e. “I’m sorry for saying that, but I was really mad.”
CLEARLY STATE WHAT YOU’RE APOLOGIZING FOR
Let the other person know specifically what you are apologizing for. Apologize for your actions, not their feelings. “Sorry you feel that way” sounds like you are avoiding responsibility. Be clear – “I’m sorry that I said that to you. I should have taken a break instead. I can see why that would hurt.”
The above example is clear and communicates your understanding. It also validates the other person’s point of view, which is important. We don’t have to necessarily agree to effectively apologize. Maybe you wouldn’t care if your partner didn’t call when they were running late. However, if it’s upsetting to them, take responsibility and clearly let them know you understand where they are coming from. Understanding and agreement are two separate things.
FOCUS ON IMPACT INSTEAD OF INTENT
Part of the reason we apologize is to acknowledge that we caused someone to hurt. People can be hurt by our words or actions even if we didn’t mean to be upsetting. It doesn’t matter if we meant to offend or not, it’s still important to recognize it and show remorse. Showing remorse does not mean you’re admitting intentional behavior. It simply means you are putting someone you care about ahead of yourself.
So many times I hear someone refuse to apologize saying “but I didn’t mean to!” Think about this. How many times have you accidentally bumped into a stranger and said “Oh I’m sorry.” Did you mean to? Why offer an apology if you didn’t? When we hurt someone, even unintentionally, they deserve to hear us recognize that. We are not admitting bad intention, we are only recognizing that our actions caused someone else to feel pain.
STATE WHAT YOU PLAN TO DO IN THE FUTURE
How do you plan to avoid repeating the problem in the future? Offer suggestions to keep it from happening again. This shows your commitment to change and also helps restore trust. If you are not sure, ask what you can do. This is not about restitution, it is about minimizing the likelihood something similar will happen again. For example, “next time I am feeling angry, I will let you know that I need to take a break.”
ASK FOR, BUT DO NOT DEMAND FORGIVENESS
Asking for forgiveness makes a strong statement about your desire to repair hurt and move forward. However, sometimes giving forgiveness takes time. It is not up to you to control that. People will choose to forgive at their own pace and it is up to them to go through the process. An authentic apology can go a long way towards helping someone forgive, but it is not a guarantee.
BONUS THOUGHT: GIVING IN TO AVOID A FIGHT ISN’T AN APOLOGY, IT’S A LIE
It is common in relationships to apologize in order to end an argument. The problem is, it’s not actually an apology. It’s manipulative and selfish. You are leading the other person on because you are tired of fighting. You are actually lying to the other person, even if you feel it is well-intended.
Instead, take a break. This is a more honest approach and more likely to result in a more satisfactory conclusion for all.
Apologies are not required for forgiveness, but they are essential for reconciliation. Healthy relationships include a good dose of humility. When you make a mistake – large or small – take responsibility, apologize, and identify how you will keep it from happening again. Your relationships will be stronger and you will feel much better as well!