“I’m Sorry” – The Steps of an Apology

Sometimes I feel like I am in the apology business. Helping kids make apologies to their parents (or the other way around), husbands to wives (it seems to go this way most often), organizations to individuals (e.g. when a church leadership apologizes for insensitivity to a neighbour who complains about a building project or a late night rock group) – this is some of what my work is.

“I’m sorry if I did something wrong” is not an apology. It is non-specific and the ‘if’ avoids personal responsibility. It is more of an inquiry than anything.

“I know that I hurt you by (e.g.) coming home late for dinner. It certainly was not my intent.” This is not an apology either – it is an acknowledgment. And it is a helpful acknowledgment to offer.

“The reason I was driving so fast was because you were late again — that’s why I’m so frustrated” is an explanation intended to spread out the responsibility and pain. Not an apology.

Here is an apology: “(1) I am sorry. (2) It is my fault. (3) Please forgive me.”

Imagine that the problem is about a woman’s insensitivity to her husband at a family get-together. Here is the apology: “I am sorry I left you out of the conversation with my family on Saturday. I know this isolates you and you feel lonely. And I know we talked about how I could include you. It is my fault. Will you forgive me for this?”

Every apology has (1) an honest expression of regret, (2) authentic accepting of responsibility and (3) a request for forgiveness. Without these three steps, what we think of as an apology is something else.


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