Ever since we were kids, we’ve been practicing apologies. Before we even understood what it meant, we were told to say sorry after we hurt someone, whether it was an accident or not and whether we wanted to or not. In the Bible, too, we repeatedly receive instructions on apologies, dealing with conflict, and forgiveness (Matthew 5:9, 18:15-17; Romans 12:17-21; Colossians 3:13; James 1:19), so its safe to assume this topic is a pretty big deal.
For most of us, it’s been awhile now since we were kids, but some of us still haven’t learned exactly how to apologize well. It sounds easy on paper, but high emotions can ruin it, so here’s a few things to try to keep in mind next time we find ourselves stuck in conflict and attempting an apology:
Have the right attitude.
Before we even think about approaching someone to apologize, we have to make sure our attitudes are in check, i.e. we can’t go into the conversation thinking we’re 100% right with no chance of changing our mind or being convinced that we made a mistake. Because if that’s the way we see the situation, there’s a really good chance we’re wrong.
Not only do we need to check our attitude toward the specific conflict, but towards our relationship as a whole. How are we treating the other person? Am I the VIP of the relationship or are they? If we’re the VIP, that’s bad news. On the other hand, if we let the other person in our relationship become the most important, that relationship will be much more successful.
Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Matthew 20:28) and it’s essential that we are doing the same in our relationships. If we’re thinking of how we can serve our friend, significant other, or spouse best, we will start to listen and communicate better. In all of this, though, humility is the key. Enter into this apology conversation thinking you’re right and only apologizing because you have to and you’re going to have a bad day.
Be clear and specific.
In all of this, it’s important that our words are clear and leave little to no room for miscommunication, aka, the thing that makes conflicts 100x worse. Not only does clarity help to avoid miscommunication, but it also shows the other person in the relationship that we fully understand the situation.
On top of being specific in communicating why we were wrong, it’s important to communicate the specific ways we hurt the other person and to articulate their perspective clearly. This shows that we’re listening and that we understand where they’re coming from, and at the very least, are sympathetic to what they’re feeling.
Take responsibility for our actions.
First of all, the truth is really our only option for success. We’ve all been there, trapped in a fight that goes around and around in circles until we can’t remember who said what and someone has to be confused or lying because the stories just don’t line up anymore. Maybe it was some accidental truth-twisting or maybe an intentional lie, but either way, it makes the whole ordeal that much more difficult.
Telling the truth means telling the whole truth about what we did, even if it isn’t so flattering. When apologizing to someone, we can’t shy away from admitting that we were wrong, even if maybe we’re not convinced (there’s that whole humility issue again…). After admitting we were wrong, we can’t fall into the trap of making excuses for ourselves. It’s one thing for us to explain what we were thinking, why we did what we did, etc., in order to help the other person to understand. Its entirely different for us to attempt to excuse away our actions by explaining our intentions. Even if our motives were great, that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. It’s essential that we’re sensitive to other people’s feelings and situations.
Promise to do better next time, and actually do it.
Empty promises are worthless. We lose credibility if we continually promise to change and then make little to no effort to actually change. It’s hard though, isn’t it? Change doesn’t happen overnight, but being aware of what needs to change and being willing to try is half the battle.
God doesn’t expect perfection and neither should our friend, significant other, or spouse. God doesn’t expect us to be able to change in our own strength, either, just the opposite actually. God knows that we need Him to make those changes in us, to heal us of our brokenness that comes out in all those ugly ways to hurt others. That’s the only way we’ll be able to keep all those promises to change.
Want to learn more about conflicts, forgiveness, and how to navigate relationships well? Check out Pastor Jim’s most recent teaching series HERE.