The Art of Apologizing Well

Katie asked me six questions about apologizing. Here’s the outline for the video:

  1. 0–4:17—Have you always been good at apologizing?
  2. 4:17–6:54—What are wrong ways to apologize?
  3. 6:54–13:00—What are right ways to apologize?
  4. 13:00–19:35—What is your favorite story about apologizing?
  5. 19:35–24:04—Should we apologize to our kids?
  6. 24:04–27:39—How can apologizing or lack of apologizing affect marriages?

1. Have you always been good at apologizing? Elaborate on your “history” with apologizing and how you grew in it.

When I saw this question, my first thought was, “If I’ve learned too apologize well, it’s from making so many mistakes.”

As a pastor you’re going to learn to become comfortable apologizing, because it’s a necessity to have a healthy church body. I’d go so far as saying don’t become a pastor if you’re not comfortable apologizing. You’re going to have to apologize for your own actions and the actions of others. Nothing looks worse than shifting blame, even if the blame belongs elsewhere.

As far as when I learned to apologize, I’d have to give credit to LTC Richard Brewer, my commander in Army ROTC. He didn’t teach me to apologize. He forced me to apologize. I couldn’t make excuses or shift blame.

2. What are wrong ways to apologize?

When we should apologize our sinful nature wants to flare up, get angry, make excuses or blame others. Some people – whether intentionally or unintentionally – act like they’re apologizing, but their “apologies” are simply excuses disguised as apologies.

Two words destroy apologies:

  1. The most obvious is “but”:
    • I’m sorry, BUT if they hadn’t done that…
    • I am sorry, BUT this happened…
    • Oh, I’m sorry, BUT I never would’ve done this if not for…
  2. Less obvious is the word “you”:
    • I’m sorry YOU did this…
    • Well, I’m sorry YOU are mad…
    • I’m sorry YOU are offended…

The word “you” allows people to subtly shift the blame to the other person. It’s a manipulative way to make the other person feel bad about being hurt or upset.

3. What are right ways to apologize?

We don’t want to let sin and pride have victories in our relationships. We need to humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness. There are primarily two steps:

  1. Begin by saying, “I’m sorry I…” or “I’m sorry for…” followed by the offense.
  2. Then you have to say, “Will you please forgive me?”

The second step does two things:

  1. Shows you recognize you’ve done something that requires forgiveness. Demonstrates you’re not minimizing your actions.
  2. Engages the other person; requires a response.

As a note, if you say, “Yes, I forgive you” you’re obligated to do that! You have to do your best to forget about the offense, not hold it against the person, refuse to bring it up, etc.

4. What is your favorite story about apologizing?

Please watch the video itself for the two stories I shared:

  • 13:00–16:15—A man spent lots of tax payers’ money building sidewalks that didn’t the traffic situation. He would’ve been destroyed by reporters in a press conference, but he humbly acknowledged his fault and asked for forgiveness.
  • 16:15–19:35—When I taught elementary school my students lost lots of books. The librarian was (understandably) upset with me. I apologized and asked for her forgiveness and our relationship was restored.

5. Should we apologize to our kids?

A good rule for parenting is we should do whatever we want our kids to do. There are exceptions. For example our kids were in bed when we filmed the video, but we don’t have to go to bed at 8PM. For the most part though, we need to model what we want to see from our children. If we want our children to apologize and ask for forgiveness, we need to apologize and ask for forgiveness.

Generally children who accept responsibility for their actions have parents who accept responsibility for their actions. Children who make excuses often have parents who make excuses.

6. How can apologizing or lack of apologizing affect marriages?

Apologizing well can diffuse aggression. An insincere apology that shifts blame or makes excuses increases frustration and hurt.

Hebrews 12:14-15 Pursue peace with all people…looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.

Some couples who have been married for a long time have become more like roommates than people in love. Often this is because they have built up years of bitterness between each other. They have hurts toward each other piled on top of other hurts. Often this is because they let pride and stubbornness prevent them from taking responsibility for their actions. Their marriages have suffered terribly as a result.

A few other things:

22 thoughts on “The Art of Apologizing Well

  1. This is a great post and very helpful! I have clung to the verse about not letting bitterness take root in the past. You are right- relationships (marriages, friendships, other family) without apologies can quickly turn bitter. But a sincere apology can make all the difference.

    Of course, God tells us to forgive anyway. But a good apology really helps!

    1. Thanks Beka.

      Yes, I’ve prayed that too. Asking God to take the bitterness out by the roots. I have trouble doing that myself. Right: commanded, but an apology makes it much easier :).

  2. I have found myself being more cognisant of when I start to have excuses disguised as apologies. Far better to just own any mistake you made and recognize the hurt in another than to try to ‘save face’.

    Very interesting interview.

  3. Learning to accept responsibility for my side in any mistake or argument has been life changing. It is hard, but so freeing to just admit, yep, I’m not perfect and I’m sorry. It has changed my marriage. My husband sees my humility and is quicker to apologize himself.

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Wow, that’s great. Thanks for sharing. Wonderful testimony.

      Yes, it is freeing to give up fighting to be right and simply confess. Some similarities to our relationships with the Lord.

  4. Yes we should apologize to our children. This teaches them we are not perfect and that they too will mess up and need to apologize. We have way too many children that never say they are sorry, they just don’t own their mistakes.

  5. Great post! I’ve definitely been aware of not adding “but” to my apologies for a long time, but had never thought about the “you” aspect. I didn’t have time to watch the video yet, and I’m brand new to your site. I can tell you must have a wealth of great relationship advice here and I can’t wait to dive in.

    One thing I add to my children’s apology “script” is to have them admit that they’re wrong. (My kids are 5 and under). It goes a little something like this:
    “I’m sorry for X. I was wrong. Will you please forgive me?”

    1. Hi April,
      Glad you were able to learn something new from the post!

      Thanks also for the feedback on the site. Looking forward to having you along with us!

      Great script for your kids; sounds very much like the one I’d recommend! How many children do you have?

  6. This is really easy to read and well laid out. Thank you! Grrr.. the “I’m sorry YOU feel that way.” is truly the most frustrating one. From some of the ministries I have been a part of, it is easy to tell which ones have an atmosphere of amends and forgiveness among leaders and participants, and which ones don’t. It truly is so important.

    1. Hi Alyssa,
      Yes! Just yesterday my wife and I got a message from someone that said, “I’m sorry you think…” It is frustrating, because it communicates the person really don’t feel bad about anything he/she has done.

      I agree regarding your ministry point; it’s one of the most important parts of having a healthy, joyful, congregation.

  7. YES. Love what you said about the “but” word. That is something that my father struggled with; he was always unsure of why his children/other family members wouldn’t take his apologies seriously but his apologies always had that same word in them. Shifting the blame to others or making excuses while apologizing ruins the apology completely. Also loved your point on how we should say what we’re apologizing for. Mention the offense. Be humble and get rid of the pride that we may not even realize is in us! It always means so much when someone is willing to admit that they were wrong for a specific thing.

    1. Hi Kay,
      Now that I’m going through these comments, that seems to be the theme: using the word “but.” Almost everyone notices how it destroys apologies!

      Ouch! Sorry to hear that about your dad. Maybe you can share this post with him :).

      Yes, we have to be specific when we’re apologizing, otherwise the person won’t know what we’re sorry for doing. Yes, admittance truly diffuses aggression!

  8. Thank you for sharing! Great Counsel for my heart! As a prideful person apologizing can be so hard sometimes! Thanks for the honest transparency. One question I had, that might have been addressed and I just missed it, was what do in the case of being sorry for how I handled something, but to honestly sorry for what I said. So not blame shifting or making excuses, I am talking about the situations where I would say I am sorry for how I said something, but not for what I said. I run in to that in ministry life where what I said I would totally repeat again, but how I said it wasn’t very tactful. Any thoughts on that?

    1. Hi Jamie,
      I’ve always felt like if people acknowledge their pride, they can’t be too prideful. It’s the prideful people who don’t see their pride, while the humble people are able to recognize it.

      You said, “…so hard sometimes.” Again, that’s humble. It’s typically hard for everyone all the time.

      Good question.

      You can definitely apologize and ask for forgiveness for the way you said something without asking for forgiveness for what you said. I have had to do this before. I call it, “Being right and still being wrong.” You’re right about what you said, but wrong because of the way you said it.

      Here’s what I have said: “When I confronted you the other day, I was too harsh. Please forgive me.” Or, “I’m sorry for the way I talked to you the other day. I should’ve been kinder. Please forgive me.”

      You’re not apologizing for confronting the person, and you’re not apologizing for what you said…just the way it came out.

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