When Sorry Doesn’t Cut It!

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In my work, I witness the terrible consequences of weak and under-preformed apologies. This phrase is an example I often hear in my sessions:

I said I was sorry, what more can I do?

In essence what the offender is doing is minimizing the pain they inflicted upon another person by not taking full responsibility for their own actions. This leaves the offended party feeling like they don’t matter and their pain is not real. It also builds a wall of suspicion and mistrust through which they interpret all future actions. In other words, they are thinking; if they did it once and they didn’t seem to care what’s stopping them from doing it again?

This is why it is critical that old wounds be healed so that trust can eventually be restored and the relationship repaired.

Before I get into the details about developing a true language of apology I need to say something about forgiveness.

  • Forgiveness is always a choice. It may not “feel” like a choice but it is.  
  • Forgiveness is unilateral. One does not need an apology to forgive. (but it helps)
  • Forgiveness always benefits the forgiver more than the forgiven. I have seen people who choose not to forgive turn bitter and cold.
  • Forgiveness is the only true path toward reconciliation. Unforgiveness is cancer in a relationship it will always end up in death.

No matter how pitiful or beautiful the apology the one who has been hurt can decide not to forgive. This is tragic because unforgiveness grows into resentment and resentment always damages the one who has it.

Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die
— Saint Augustine

So check your heart. If you have not forgiven someone then you are in danger of hurting yourself and that is very sad.

Learning the language of apology is about trying to create the best possible environment for healing a relational wound. Relationship wounds are similar to physical wounds, most physical wounds will heal over time but when they are cleaned, bandaged and tenderly cared for they heal much, much faster. And so it is with relational wounds when there is a true, honest and sincere apology the relationship heals faster.


Here are the five steps to making a good apology

Step One: Prepare Your Heart

True apologies come from a humble heart. The Bible says it like this.

God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.
— James 4:6

God is not the only one who opposes the proud. It is extremely hard to feel close to someone who is proud, much less forgive them. In fact, pride is toxic to a healthy relationship. Check your heart before you ask for forgiveness. Are you willing to humble yourself enough to admit your wrongs?  This does not mean that you were “totally” wrong. However, it does mean that you can admit to the part you had without blaming or excuses. It also means that you are not asking for forgiveness with the hope that the other person steps forward with an apology of their own. This may or may not happen, you have no control over that. What you do control is your own actions and taking responsibility for them.

Never ruin a good apology with an excuse
— Benjamin Franklin

Step two: Ask for permission to apologize.

The best time to apologize is when they are in a frame of mind to listen to your apology. That is not always immediately after you have hurt them. In fact, if you jump into an apology right away you need to ask; “Am I apologizing because I am truly sorry that I hurt them or am I apologizing because I don’t want to experience the consequences of my actions?” Ask for permission to apologize and wait until it is granted. In the meantime, act in a way that is consistent with your sincere desire to apologize. (i.e. don’t get bitter, passive-aggressive, distant or resentful.

Here’s something that you may say: “I would like to apologize for how I hurt you, is now a good time to talk?”


Step Three: State clearly what you did wrong and how you hurt them

This is the “meat” of the apology because it touches on the emotional damage that was caused by the offense. Often the offender doesn’t truly grasp the depths of the pain the other person experienced and therefore offers an apology that seems feeble and insincere. It is vital that the offender really understand the pain that was inflicted and just as vital that the one who was hurt feels like the offender empathizes with their pain. This means that the offended party needs to feel free to express their hurt until the offender hears, understands and acknowledges their pain.

Many a relational wound has gone unhealed because the offender has not taken the time and effort to truly understand the damage that was caused by their action. They trivialize it and reason it away and therefore never succeed in building a healing bridge which is necessary to bring about real reconciliation.

Here are a few questions that need to be asked when seeking forgiveness.

  • Can you tell me what I did that hurt you?
  • How do you feel about our relationship right now?
  • What was the worst part about the way I treated you?

When the hurt is expressed it is the job of the offender to paraphrase their feelings so that the hurt party can see that the offender truly understands their pain. Here is an example of putting this concept into words.

So what I hear you saying is when I [did, said, acted like I did] you felt [express the feeling here].

It is essential not to move on to step four until the offender is able to express the feelings of the offended to their own satisfaction.

Warning! Sometimes those who have been hurt also expect the one who hurt them to somehow read their minds and understand their feelings without expressing them. I have heard the offended party say things like; “well, if you don’t know, I’m not certainly not going to tell you!” This “logic” completely derails any hope of reconciliation and leaves the one seeking forgiveness confused, discouraged and even bitter. The relationship gap becomes even wider as the offender now becomes offended and both parties feel justified in their resentment toward each other.


Step Four: Tell them specifically how you intend to change

Step four is crucial, otherwise, what you’ve offered isn’t an apology — it’s an excuse. Ask them what you would like to see changed and offer your own suggestions for righting the wrong or changing a pattern of behavior. This is a time to get real about committing to change. There is an old word that is rarely used anymore (probably because taking responsibility for one’s own actions has fallen out of fashion in our present culture). The word is REPENTANCE.  What it means is to turn around and go in another direction. When we admit we have done something wrong it is not enough to simply be sorry for what we have done, we need to make a commitment to change. This means we need to repent. Does repentance mean that we will never do it again? No. What it means is that we are committing to the process of changing the way we are acting and therefore choosing a new path in the relationship. When you enter into step four be as specific as possible so that your apology has “teeth” and demonstrates your commitment to change.


Step Five: Ask them for forgiveness

This step comes after …

  • You have rid yourself of your pride and arrogance
  • You have honored them by allowing them to choose the right time for the apology
  • You have expressed your understanding of their pain and they believe you
  • You have committed to changing and have offered specific and tangible ways you are going to act differently

When all this has happened you have cultivated the soil to plant the seeds of forgiveness and reconciliation. In my experience doing this prep work will pay huge relational dividends.

It is important that the request for forgiveness be a sincere verbal request. Even if the offended party expresses their willingness to forgive before it is requested don’t halt the process. There is something very powerful in a verbal request and a verbal acceptance. It is a little like proposing. Usually, when the proposal is made it is a foregone conclusion that it will be accepted. But woe to the man who does not formally ask and wait for a reply. If that doesn’t happen a beautiful moment is missed and an opportunity to commemorate their mutual commitment is lost. No matter how weird it may seem, ask for forgiveness and wait until forgiveness is given. You will not regret it.  

When forgiveness is given that does not mean that emotional pain is immediately swept away. Sometimes it may take a while for emotional stability to return to the relationship. At a time like this, it is important for both parties to remember some vital truths.

The Offender: Let the other person heal. Just because they still feel the pain of the wound it does not mean your apology was not accepted. Be patient and kind, understanding that emotions often lag way behind our intentions. Forgiveness does not necessarily result in an instant normalization of your relationship, there is the emotional fallout which usually requires the rebuilding of trust. Stay the course and refuse to become discouraged. Depending on the severity of the offense, they may need to process the pain for quite a while until the wound heals.

The offended: Recognize that your decision to forgive is unilateral. It was your choice – and a very good one at that! If you still experience negative feelings it is not because you have not forgiven it is just a natural response to being hurt. Don’t let your emotions dictate your commitment to your relationship. Emotions are wonderful companions but horrible leaders - they get us lost every time.

One more thing; never use what you have chosen to forgive as ammunition for future arguments. When you forgive you give up all rights to punishing the wrongdoer for the hurt that was inflicted upon you. You have set the offender free and have set yourself free in the process.


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