I have been thinking a lot recently about apologies, and what makes a good apology.
Apologies are essential for repairing broken relationships. The reality is that all of us will do things that damage relationships, for reasons ranging from thoughtlessness to malice. All of us will hurt other people in one way or another, through the things that we do, or the things that we fail to do. On the assumption that we do not want to live with these damaged relationships, and on the assumption that we regret our contribution to the damage, an apology is essential in the work of repair.
An apology is necessarily verbal. It is expressed in words. Actions are, by themselves, ambiguous and may be understood in ways that are not intended. The words provide an interpretation of the actions, explaining what is going on. Take, for example, an incident of name-calling between two boys. The fact that the instigator stops calling names could be understood as a recognition of the wrongness of his actions. However, it could also be understood as him biding his time before starting again. It could be understood as a simple desire not to get in trouble again. It could also be understood as him simply moving on to other things. None of these alternatives help to repair the relationship.
An apology, on the other hand, can provide an interpretive framework, but only if it is done well. I imagine that we all understand the uselessness of the grudgingly muttered ‘Sorry’ that can be coerced from the unwilling apology-maker. The word is an apology, but the tone is anything but!
I would argue that there are four key components to a good apology, and that they can be put together in a meaningful way through this scaffold:
1. I am sorry for …
2. It was wrong because …
3. In the future I will …
4. Will you forgive me?
The first statement explicitly names the action for which the apology is made. This specific identification of the speaker’s action is crucial. This sentence must name something that I have done, not an effect that my action has had. It is not an apology to say, ‘I am sorry that you are offended.’
The second statement unpacks the reason why my action was wrong. This is where the connection gets drawn between my behaviour and its impact on others.
The third statement shifts the focus to the future, identifying how my behaviour will be different. Putting words to this change of behaviour is the first step in making the change.
The fourth sentence changes form, from a statement to a question. It recognises the legitimacy of the pain experienced by the other person. It acknowledges that there is presently a breach in the relationship caused by something for which I have responsibility. And it provides an opportunity for the hurt party to exercise their own agency in the situation, by making a decision to forgive. One cannot control whether another party will forgive you. Nor can one presume that forgiveness must always be given instantaneously and fully, as some hurts are deep and profound.
It is worth noting that a Christian worldview lies beneath this scaffold. As Christians we are acutely aware of our own self-centredness and its potential impact on others. We know the exhortation of the Scriptures to be renewed and transformed in the way we treat others. And we know both the joy of being forgiven and the release that comes from forgiving others, through the example and teaching of Jesus.
A scaffold of this sort can be immensely helpful as our children learn to apologise. This is not because the goal is for them to parrot off the paragraph as though they are writing a formula. Rather, in learning to apologise well in the small matters of playground etiquette, classroom behaviour and family life, they are being equipped to do relationships well as adults, where the capacity for damage and consequences is so much more profound.
Learning to apologise does not appear in the formal school curriculum (to my knowledge), but it is an invaluable lesson for all of us.
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