When Apologies go Wrong

A while ago, I visited a church I previously attended regularly, and one of the parishioners walked up to me to apologize. Here is how her apology went:

I noticed when you come to church you avoid me, she said. She continued to say; I want to see Jesus. If there is anything I have done to you, please forgive me.

After that encounter, I was moved for a moment; however, I felt uncomfortable with the apology, but I couldn’t wrap my head around my uneasiness with the apology. This person had done some pretty nasty things as I recalled it. After reflection, here are some thoughts about that apology that bothered me.

First, she started the apology by scolding me. I noticed you don’t interact with me when you come to church. If you plan to apologize to someone, just get to it. Don’t try to make the other person feel guilty that you are apologizing.

Secondly, she said, I want to see Jesus before starting the apology. Starting the apology with a statement like that simply says, I am only apologizing because there is some benefit to me. Here is a different interpretation of the same lead-in. I need to clear my conscience. Your apology for previously offending someone should never be for your benefit. Instead, your apology should be because you have wronged someone, and you need to restore them if possible. If not possible to restore the person, for example, in the case of rape, then you need to reassure the person that you fully accept accountability for your actions, and you are genuinely remorseful.

Finally, she was never specific about her apology. I might have assumed she was apologizing for one thing while she was apologizing for something completely different. Apologies should be straightforward. Both individuals should know what and why you are apologizing and the remedy to prevent the same behavior. It would also be excellent while making amends if you shared how you’ve grown in the process so you would not harm others.

The lesson I also learned in this process is that apologies require more humility on the person receiving the apology than the person giving it. Why? If someone is humble and honest enough to provide a genuine apology, it takes humility on the aggrieved individual to forgive the person apologizing and to restore them as well. After this person apologized to me, I felt no different, and I did not forgive her at that point. Later in the day, after I had some time to think about it, I realized she was using the tools she had, and though I did not see her apology as sincere, I needed to accept there was an effort on her part.

Be ready and willing to forgive; however, if someone begins an apology with “if I have offended anyone or if I have offended you,” stop the person and ask them to be specific about their apology. Remind them of why they are apologizing and have them restart the apology. I believe this one action might go a long way to close the gap between a sincere apology and your acceptance and forgiveness of the apology.

It is probably better not to apologize if you don’t own it. Chances are, you didn’t see fault on your part.

Stan Brooks, PhD

By Stan Brooks, PhD

Dr. S. MacNivan Brooks is an Intergroup Leadership Coach, Motivational Speaker, and Author.

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