The Fine Art of Apology


Bill and his wife were high school sweethearts when he went off to college. They kept in touch via telephone but one day had a disagreement.

Abruptly, he announced over the phone they were through. However, the break-up left him feeling so bad that a short time later he hitchhiked 500 kilometres back home and went directly to her house. Her mother said she wasn’t home; she was out on a date.

“I stayed there and made her mother very nervous,” he remembers. When his former girlfriend finally came home, she was shocked to see him. Bill apologised for his behaviour and his words. “I told her what a fool I was. She was the person I loved, the person I wanted to be with. We’ve been married now for 40 years!” That true incident demonstrates the power inherent in an apology. Offering a few words of apology begins the process of healing one who has been hurt and restoring a relationship that has suffered a rupture. On the one hand, saying “I am sorry” should be one of the most simple tasks in the world. On the other hand, doing so appears to be a formidable challenge for far too many people in our society. It seems difficult for many to apologise, possibly because they are embarrassed, have too much pride or cannot take the risk their apology will be rejected.

Without an apology, the offended person carries resentment and, while it may dissipate with time, it will most likely never be completely released. Yet a few words of regret, sincerely offered, is emotional damage control; preventing a wound from festering and becoming larger until the breach is insurmountable.

That is behind the biblical advice to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

benefits of apologising

Try to understand the benefits of an apology. Expressing an apology delivers enormous benefits for both the receiver and the giver. In her book, The Power of An Apology, Beverly Engle cites these benefits to the receiver:

  • The person harmed can experience emotional healing when acknowledged by the offender.
  • The person harmed no longer perceives the wrongdoer as a personal threat.
  • The person harmed is empowered to move beyond anger and prevented from dwelling on the past.
  • The person harmed has an opportunity to respond with forgiveness.

Engel also notes that the offending party is the recipient of these benefits when they apologise:

  • Rather than being eaten away with guilt and remorse, the offender can reduce esteem-robbing selfreproach and guilt by apologising.
  • Arrogance is cut down when the offender recognises their fault and apologises.
  • Offending persons who apologise can remain emotionally connected to friends, colleagues and loved ones.
    Without an apology, distancing takes place.
  • Since an apology can create humility in the offender, it can also act as a deterrent reminding him or her not to repeat the act.

apologise in humility

Accept responsibility for your actions. Scripture cautions people against prideful refusal to admit a mistake or wrongdoing: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Being incapable of making an apology when you are clearly wrong is the sign of a major character flaw. Rather than delay, accept responsibility for your words or deeds. This too, is a biblical recommendation: “Go and humble yourself; press you plea with your neighbour! Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids” (Proverbs 6:3, 4).

During a question-and-answer session at a conference, Henry Paulson Jr, chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group, seemed to imply that 80 per cent of his employees were irrelevant to the company’s success. “I don’t want to sound heartless,” he responded to the questioner, “but in almost every one of our businesses, there are 15 to 20 per cent of people who really add 80 per cent of the value.” Paulson’s comments rapidly spread throughout the company, drawing an overwhelmingly negative reaction.

Rather than deflect the issue, saying his comments were taken out of context or some other feeble explanation, Paulson immediately accepted responsibility for his words. In a voice mail to all of Goldman’s 20,000 employees, he apologised and acknowledged his remarks were “insensitive and glib. I cited the 80-20 rule, which is totally at odds with the way I think about the people here.” Paulson also explained he intended to apologise in person at a series of upcoming meetings with employees but realised that “I should get to you immediately.”

Repair the damage the same way you made it. If you offended someone publicly, then make your apology publicly.

It doesn’t work to embarrass someone before a group of people but later offer an apology in private to the offended person. That’s the lesson in this incident between newspaper publisher William Beaverbrook and Britain’s future prime minister, Edward Heath. In the bathroom of his London club, Beaverbrook met Heath, then a young parliamentarian, about whom he had printed an insulting editorial only a few days earlier.

“My dear chap,” said Beaverbrook, embarrassed by the encounter, “I’ve been thinking it over and I was wrong.

Here and now, I wish to apologise.” Reluctantly, Heath responded: “Very well, but next time, I wish you’d insult me in the washroom and apologise in your newspaper!” The lesson in that story is basic: as much as possible, repair the damage the same way you made it.

Apologise face to face and reinforce it in writing. Often a simple “I am so sorry” with brief explanation is sufficient. However, when the blunder is more serious, personal words of remorse ought to be reinforced with a short note. Etiquette authority Letitia Baldrige cites the example of a woman who made an ethnic slur in front of a friend, who she did not know was of that culture. Baldrige advises writing the victim of her remark this kind of note: “In saying what I did, I realise I have offended you badly, and myself, too, because it was a cruel, stupid and bigoted remark. I hope someday you will forgive me. The episode has taught me a very valuable lesson. I am only sorry that, in learning it, I had to hurt a good friend at the same time.” n Keep in mind when you apologise that the other person may indeed be upset. Allow the person to express their disappointment and frustration. Doing so will validate the person’s feelings.

Listen respectfully and allow the person to vent their hurt. Never minimise their feelings by blurting out “You’re overreacting!” or “You’re making a big deal out of nothing!” It is much better to listen and acknowledge the offended person’s feelings by saying something like: “I am sorry I upset you. You have a right to feel this way. I will make sure this never happens again.”

Give it time. Then, after apologising, be patient. Things never fall back into place immediately just because an apology was extended. The person who was hurt does not heal right after hearing “I’m sorry.” It may take a little time for the offended one to release their feelings and experience healing. Remember this wisdom from Shakespeare: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees.” n When you’ve offended someone, healing and reconciliation can be greatly enhanced by demonstrating your regret in your actions. In 1963, George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, literally stood in the door of the University of Alabama to prevent Vivian Jones, a black woman, from enrolling as a student.

ittle by little, the staunch segregationist saw the error of his ways. Thirty-three years later, he publicly apologised to Jones and as proof of his words, he awarded her the first Lurleen B Wallace Award for Courage. The award—named in honour of Wallace’s wife—recognises women who have made outstanding contributions to the state of Alabama.

At the ceremony, Wallace said: “Vivian Malone Jones was at the centre of the fight over states’ rights and conducted herself with grace, strength and, above all, courage.” If you find yourself reluctant to apologise because you’re too embarrassed, try remembering that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Most likely, the person you’ve offended will receive your apology graciously. As a result, anger will be dissolved, hurt pride soothed and a wounded heart will be healed.

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