When I was growing up, my mother, a saintly woman who managed to raise and homeschool myself and my eight siblings, used to often teach us how to apologize to one another. With nine children, there were often sibling disputes and conflicts to be resolved. These conflicts ranged from the inoccuous (“Daniel won’t share his Thomas the Tank Engine train with me!”) to the serious (“Daniel hit me!”). My mother taught us a formula for apologizing that had three essential elements. An apology lacking in any one of these was not a true apology. The three elements were:
This part begins with a recognition of the internal distress one feels at having wronged another. It looks inward to how I feel about my actions.
“I was wrong.”
The second part of the apology deals with a recognition of universal morality and the extent to which the behavior you modeled did not fit with this objective standard.
“Will you please forgive me?”
This final part is a request from the offender to the offended to forgive and move beyond that thing.
This apology formula is a good one, and it still forms the basis of how I view the structure of a good verbal apology. It’s important to feel remorse, recognize the objective mark you missed, and reach out to the other person asking them to forgive you. But as I’ve experienced more of life, I’ve had a more full understanding of what it means to apologize.
Few things will teach you how to apologize more than having an insincere apology offered to you. An insincere apology is one that sounds almost like a true apology. But you know it’s insincere when subsequent behavior fails to change or when within the apology structure you have passive-aggressive barbs (“I’m sorry you’re upset,” for example). Oftentimes an insincere apology comes dozens of times. It comes so often because it means so little, as the person often repeats the thing they just apologized to us for.
The best apologies have nothing to do with the words we say. The best apologies are those that are lived. There are thus two key and complementing means to apologizing: one is an apology of words and the other is an apology of deeds. Often when we apologize, we do so with our words, emotions, and thoughts. These cerebral apologies are a good place to start. But the more important apology is the apology of action, where we do our best to cease causing one another pain.
Talk is notoriously cheap.
It’s easy in life, love, and business to talk. We often talk about things we’d like to do or things we’d like to avoid. It’s much harder to change behaviors. Our behaviors often arise out of habits and thought patterns that run much deeper. Sometimes our words and emotions can change those thought patterns, resulting in different behavior. But ultimately, an apology that does not lead to changed behavior destroys trust.
When I was four years old, I was given a chocolate cross around Easter time. I remember being so excited because this thing looked amazing. It was huge. And chocolatey. To a four-year-old, it looked like it would be enough chocolate to last a year (or at least a week). But when I went to bite into it, what I expected was a solid bar of chocolate turned out to be filled with air. There was just a thin shell of chocolate surrounding, well, nothing.
When we apologize with words but don’t follow those words up with actions, our apologies ring hollow. We’re like those empty chocolate crosses, looking good for a moment but completely devoid of substance.
The problem with verbal apologies is that often times we behave as though simply feeling bad and self-loathing for a moment about our behavior is enough. This leads to us feeling as though simply saying words and feeling emotions is the basis of a restoration of our integrity. Our integrity, however, is much less about how we feel and what we say and much, much more about what we actually do.
What I’ve come to realize about apologies is that the best form of apology is one of action. These apologies are not simply thought and emotional exercises. It’s not mere self-loathing coupled with words about forgiveness. The best apologies are ones that are visible.
Imagine for a moment we lived in a world without thought and language, where only action and behavior mattered. The apologies that matter would be on full display in this world. You would be able to watch and see an apology in action. It wouldn’t simply be a matter of words and thoughts strung together.
When we make mistakes it’s important to first get the changed behavior right. We can, and should, verbally apologize. But when we verbally apologize we must recognize that this is not the true apology.
The true apology is one of changed behavior.
Anything else is just window dressing.