The art of the good apology

I should have a degree in apologising. Perhaps MA could stand for Master of Apology. My qualifications? Only that I have decades of experience. I have needed to apologise many, many times over the years.

Big apologies were needed, for example, when I was late for a speaking engagement. That only happened twice, but it’s a bad thing to do. As the clock ticks down, the people waiting for your arrival start to panic that you’re not coming at all.

One time my lateness was because of an accident on the motorway resulting in a two mile go-nowhere-fast traffic jam. I arrived 20 minutes after the church service started at which I was to speak. I was ushered straight to the front to join the pastor. ‘Good to see you,’ he whispered. ‘I was just beginning to feel anxious.’ ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, and said it afterwards at least another ten times.

My other late arrival was because the city of Halifax in Yorkshire was temporarily removed from the planet. Well, not actually removed, but for me it had vanished. I just couldn’t find it. My crime had been overconfidence. I was so sure I would get to a city of 88,000 population easily I never really plotted my route. Eventually I stumbled across Halifax, and reached my destination half an hour after the church service had begun. By then there were less than five minutes before the sermon should begin. I took a deep breath, and started with… an apology.

So, is there such a thing as the art of the good apology? By that I don’t mean putting on a performance, but apology best practices. I’ve noted down five.

  • Recognise the need to apologise

Apologising is almost automatic for me. The words, ‘I’m so sorry…’ come out of my mouth easily. In the days when we handed over cash (do you remember cash?) in shops or restaurants, I’d apologise if I didn’t have close to the right money, as if the time and effort to give me change was my fault. Our dogs have a habit of lying on the floor in our dark hallway, and occasionally I’ll accidentally nudge one of them with my foot. I immediately bend down and apologise. The dog doesn’t understand a word, but I say sorry anyway.

But not everyone is wired to apologise. Perhaps that’s for one of two reasons: a) they never see themselves as being at fault; or b) they can’t admit to being at fault. Maybe I should feel sorry for people like that, but actually it’s hard not to be angry with them. Are people really unable to recognise they’ve done wrong? Or are they just super-arrogant, thinking they’re perfect in all they do? And maybe a psychologist can explain to me why some are unable to say the word ‘sorry’ and just apologise for what they’ve done.

Whatever the reasons, many don’t see any need to apologise. In which case, of course, they’re likely not reading this blog post.

  • Be utterly sincere with your apology

We’re all familiar with the scene: teacher stops two children squabbling – who’s at fault isn’t obvious – both children are told ‘apologise or you’re in serious trouble’ – grudging children squeeze out the words ‘I apologise’ through gritted teeth. Are they sorry? Not in the slightest. The word ‘apology’ is there, but sincerity isn’t.

Adults are also far from blameless. There’s a tendency to be more sorry for being caught than for being guilty. Such as the driver stopped by police for going through a red light, who says: ‘I’m so sorry officer. I didn’t see it had gone to red.’ What’s true in that statement? Well, it’s hard to know whether or not the driver saw the red light. Of course, he should have seen it. What is not true, I suspect, is that the driver is sorry. The offender isn’t appalled for doing something dangerous but hopes an apology will lessen the penalty. It’s a plea for leniency, not a confession of guilt.

Perhaps an instinctual apologiser is so conscious of doing wrong, their apologies come over with obvious sincerity. Therefore they’re readily accepted. Sincerity has its rewards.

  • Our apology mustn’t suggest we’re not the one at fault

I often hear weasel-wording in a supposed-apology: ‘I’m sorry if you misunderstood me’; ‘I’m sorry if you found my humour offensive’; ‘I’m sorry if my offer isn’t acceptable to you’; ‘I’m sorry if you felt bullied’.

The implication is the other person is the one with the problem: for misunderstanding, for not having a sense of humour, for not finding the offer acceptable, for feeling bullied. Statements like those are accusations, not apologies.

A real apology never blames someone else. It’s an unqualified acceptance of fault with sincere sorrow for what’s been said or done.

  • If possible, ask for forgiveness

Asking for forgiveness – assuming it’s done sincerely – is the ultimate confession of having been in the wrong. And being forgiven is a major step towards righting a broken relationship.

So, asking for forgiveness is a good thing? It is, but sometimes it can be done only at the right time and in the right circumstances, because a wronged person may not be able to give instant forgiveness. Imagine you made a big promise to a friend – perhaps of money, or support, or practical help – and your friend’s whole future depended on you. But you got distracted, and did nothing for her. All she had planned and hoped for was lost, her life changed forever. But, casually, you say, ‘Sorry about that. I had something else to do. But you’ll forgive me won’t you?’ Ruin a life and just ask forgiveness? Not reasonable. It’s no better than the old caricature: commit a sin – buy an indulgence – move on. I don’t believe forgiveness has to be earned. But I am saying something has to occur in the life of the offender and something has to occur in the life of the one offended before forgiveness may be possible.

  • Learn from your mistakes

The old saying ‘the one thing we learn from history is that no-one learns from history’ is an uncomfortable truth. We make the same mistakes more than once. But constantly repeated mistakes undermine apologies. Some people are always late for meetings, and they always apologise. After the first few times, who takes their apologies seriously? Those who aren’t making a serious effort to do better lose respect, no matter how fine their apologies.

One final point. When I was a freshly-minted pastor, a more experienced pastor friend, Alex, told me: ‘Alistair, if you love your people, they’ll forgive you anything’. He didn’t mean you could murder half your church members and get away with it. Rather, Alex was trying to say, ‘You’ll make mistakes. You’ll say something you shouldn’t, you’ll let someone down, you’ll insist on a plan that doesn’t work, you’ll preach some really boring sermons. But if your people know you love them – really love and care for them – they’ll forgive these things.’ I did care for my people, and Alex was right. They forgave me many things. But I’m sure my apologies helped!

And this blog is posted a couple of days late. I apologise.