You’re human, so at one point or another, you’ll find yourself in a position where an apology is in order. Face it. You screwed up, and someone else is paying a price for it. It could be minor — you’re texting as you accidentally bump into someone and spill their coffee on them. It could be major — you gave in to temptation and cheated on your spouse. The point is that you unintentionally caused someone else grief. I say “unintentionally,” because if you actually intended for your actions to cause grief, then you’re not interested in offering up an apology and likely feel you don’t owe one. (That’s a whole other post for another time.)
So, the deed is done. Now, what? You’re vulnerable, embarrassed, exposed to criticism for having done something wrong–stripped bare. While some people have no problem expressing an apology for doing something wrong, for many the gut reaction is to ignore it, deny it, dismiss it, minimize it, defend it, or anything else that will protect you from your nakedness. But an apology is not supposed to be about you, or is it? Generally, the goal for an apology is to make amends—to provide a positive compensation for the negative cost you caused another person. Yet, when you break it down, isn’t an apology really about asking to be forgiven? Asking forgiveness takes courage and is easier if you can dress yourself in the right mindset to maneuver through one successfully.
How you dress for an apology begins the same as any wardrobe dilemma, understanding why you are getting dressed at all. Consider that there are 2 reasons for you to apologize: The first is a reflection of your relationship with yourself. To whom and how you make an apology says volumes about your character. Not owning up to what you did is a reflection on you, not the one you hurt or offended. To shrug it off, pretend you didn’t do it, make excuses, blame someone else, accuse the victim of being too sensitive, or take other avoidance maneuvers is to make you look like an insensitive, cowardly, spoiled, rude jerk. Is that who you are? The issue becomes less about what happened and more about how poorly you handled it. You don’t have choice over inadvertently harming someone, but you do when it comes to how you respond. Ask yourself if how you’re responding mirrors the person you want yourself to be.
The second reason for you to apologize is a reflection of your relationship with the offended party. The time, energy, sacrifice, and sincerity you put into the apology in many ways defines the relationship. While you didn’t start out intending to hurt anyone, you might cause additional harm if you fumble on the recovery, harm to them and to your relationship with them and yourself. Even if the offended party is a stranger, you have a relationship with them–if for no other reason than you just spilled coffee on them or dinged their car. This may sound backwards, but it’s easier to apologize to a stranger than to someone you know or care about, because there is less on the line if your apology is rejected. Ask yourself what this relationship is worth to you and what it would mean to you if your next actions made things worse, not better.
Once you understand why you’re getting dressed, it’s time to put together the 3 components of an effective apology outfit: Accountability, Acknowledgment, and Action. Accountability is taking ownership, actually saying the words, “I’m sorry.” How many times have you seen a celebrity, famous athlete, or politician offer up an apology, yet never actually say these words? No matter what they say, the focus becomes how they never actually said the words. Remember, an apology is, at its roots, a request for forgiveness. Without first owning what you’ve done, nothing else you say or do can be taken as sincere.
Acknowledgment is about making sure the victim knows you appreciate the impact your actions have had on them, which is what gives the words “I’m sorry” their value. If it’s not clear you really understand what you did, your apology is meaningless. Being an innocent victim is unfair, and can be upsetting, embarrassing, infuriating, costly, and leave a person feeling vulnerable. They didn’t do anything wrong, yet they’re the one paying for what you did. Being able to put yourself in the victim’s shoes and express that you understand what they have to endure because of you begins the process of restoring what was taken from them spiritually–their sense of fairness, self-respect, and safety.
Action is about taking appropriate steps to make it up to them, making amends both materially and emotionally. It’s not enough to say you’re sorry and show empathy. You have to at least try to restore to them what they have lost, either directly or in some way that ultimately turns the negative of what you did into a positive for them in the long run. This is relatively easy in minor offenses. Spilled their coffee? Get them another coffee and offer to pay for their dry cleaning. Maybe sweeten the experience by adding a coffee shop gift card to compensate for the additional time and trouble they will have to endure in recovering from the situation. In determining how far you should go in making amends, ask yourself what was the impact on the offended party, and how does that compare to the impact on you? Try to level the playing field by putting yourself out as much, if not more, than what the victim will have to do to recover.
For major offenses, especially against someone you care about, making amends requires true courage and a commitment to do whatever it takes to not just make amends, but to earn forgiveness. If you’ve cheated on your spouse, a dozen flowers isn’t going to cut it. You’ve broken trust and caused extreme emotional pain that cannot be forgotten. The question is whether or not it can be forgiven. The process of forgiveness begins with your apology. Taking ownership and giving acknowledgment will be the easy part. Making amends will require a long steady journey of restoration for them and for you.
So, when an apology is called for, don’t run from it. Dress for it!