As a child, were you every forced to give an apology? To say "I'm sorry" and give a hug and be reassured by an adult that now you and your fighting buddy could be friends again? While teaching children to take responsibility and move towards reconciliation with their friends is an essential life skill, maybe the hangover of the kind of scenario I've described is that sometimes "sorry" and a hug don't do the job that's needed. Genuinely taking responsibility for hurtful and harmful actions provides a doorway for truly healed relationships instead of pretending and moving on in denial or acclerating into hostility.
In a previous post, I mentioned three aspects of an apology that opens the way for healed relationship:
Be clear about how you contributed to the problem.
Be humble about how you deliver your apology.
Be thoughtful about how you serve the person you hurt.
Having a solid understanding about how we contributed to the problem is absolutely foundational. A general statement of "things haven't been going well lately" does not take ownership and needs work to state clearly what you are specifically taking responsibility for. See my previous post for ideas on how to do this well.
Be humble about how you deliver you apology
Once you can articulate the actions, attitudes and omissions you are owning, you can run the humility comb over your apology by avoiding language that excuses and committing to actions that will produce accountability and change. True humility is free of manipulative ploys and game playing and genuinely sees an opportunity for change in yourself.
Avoid loophole language
In Ken Sande's classic book, The Peacemaker, he suggests three words to avoid when delivering an apology: if, but and maybe. Ever so subtly, these words can blame shift to the other, minimise your contribution and let you off the hook. "I'm sorry if you were upset when I missed the meeting" actually means, "If you were upset by my absence, that's on you. Me missing the meeting is not the real issue; you're attitude is." Oof! Way to take an apology apple and lace it with arsenic that will kill your relationship.
The word "but" serves as an excuse word when it take the emphasis off your hurtful or wrong actions and places it on something outside of yourself. For example, "I know I shouldn't have yelled at you like that, but I was so exhausted from all that's been going on" or worse, "It was wrong for me to cut you down with sarcasm, but you started it." Them's fighting words, and no mistake about it. This kind of apology will throw kerosene on the fire of your problem.
Other words that indicate unwillingness to accept responsibility include words that neutralise the weight of the admission of wrong. "Maybe I didn't do the right thing" or "Perhaps it wasn't so great when" or "Possibly it was wrong" or "Likely I should have done better" - none of these statements indicate to the listener that you have clarity about what you are owning or that you are fully taking responsibility. This is loophole language that carries the manipulative intent of the appearance of an apology while blowing off the blame on another or seeking sympathy or hero status. In other words, apologies like these come from a heart that has not yet engaged with humility.
Commit to changing your ways
Think about what you can do differently that will set you up for the kind of change that obviously needs to happen now that you have clarity on what you did. Could you commit to meeting with someone who can mentor you in the area where you need growth? Could you ask the other person to speak up when they see you headed down the same road of wrongdoing, and could you commit to humbly taking on board their words instead of being defensive? What if you asked prayer from your spiritual support network or close friends?
If your offence happened in the context of a leadership role, what leadership practices need to be changed? Do policies need to be updated or put into place? Where do you need more accountability or advice? What support structures could help you walk in more humility and care in your leadership role? How can you as a leader take ownership of your power and steward it well for the benefit of all? Setting goals for change and bringing those goals into the open where they can be tested and supported demonstrates seriousness of purpose and humble teachableness.
If part of what you're struggling with is listening to others, be sure to schedule time for listening and learning from others. Set an intention to be curious and open about what others have to say and leave defensiveness at the door.
Humility - it makes itself known in honest, thoughtful words and commitment to change. It keeps apologies where they are at their best, from a place of heartfelt repentance.
In the next post, we'll consider the last part of the healing apology, be thoughtful about how you serve the person you hurt.