How to Apologize Well

If you’re a human being, it is likely that you have hurt someone through your thoughts, your words, through what you have done, or what you have failed to do. And when we hurt or offend someone, it is important to apologize and ask for forgiveness in order to restore that relationship. But simply saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. In fact, sometimes a bad apology can make things worse!

Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop, Fr. Matthew Spencer discussed what makes a bad apology and what makes a good apology, and how we as Catholics have been given a model for how to apologize well. Outlining the elements of a good apology, Fr. Matthew said:

Admit what you did wrong
You know what a bad apology is, right? For example, ‘I’m sorry if I offended you.’ Making your apology conditional. ‘If that’s what you understood me to say, I’m sorry if you got worked up about it.’ That’s not really an apology. That’s basically conditioning a reaction that someone had based on how they received you. And then you using some words to placate them.

Acknowledge the hurt you have caused
Have you ever had that experience of somebody apologizing to you, and they’re not really sorry? They might be sorry that they got caught, but they’re not sorry that you’re hurt. They’re not sorry that they created some offense. And I think an important part of any genuine apology is expressing true contrition, true sorrow for what we’ve done.

Ask for forgiveness
Another element of making a good apology is to ask for forgiveness. Now, you can’t ever really demand that somebody forgive you. That’s on their conscience. And that’s up to them to choose. And hopefully they will, because God desires us to be merciful to each other. And hopefully, when people ask you for your forgiveness, you’re willing to extend that. But I think asking for forgiveness, saying ‘Will you forgive me?’ is important.

Strive to not continue the hurtful behavior
There’s another element that’s often forgotten when we try to apologize for what we’ve done wrong. Which is to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do to avoid that in the future. This is how I’m going to strive to not allow that to happen. This is the behavior I’m going to change in order to win back your trust. I mean, we have to talk about not only the errors of the past, but how we’re going to restore that relationship into the future.

If these elements of a good apology sound familiar, it’s because they are exactly the steps we walk through each time we go to Confession.

“To me, the Act of Contrition summarizes these elements so well,” Fr. Matthew pointed out. “You can read a psychology book, you can read a marriage counseling book about how to make a good apology, you can read websites about what a good apology includes and how to apologize. Well, to me it’s fascinating to look at the Act of Contrition and see that it contains all of these elements.”

So if you struggle to apologize well, or if you simply want to improve your relationship with the Lord, Fr. Matthew suggested not only participating in the sacrament of Confession frequently, but also praying the Act of Contrition outside of the confessional. He shared that his family prayed the Act of Contrition each night before bed, and it made a great impression on him and his journey of faith.

“The Act of Contrition gives us a model and a pattern, as part of our Catholic faith, of how to make a good apology, of how to work through those errors of our past,” he said. “We have to be truly authentic in the apologies we make. We have to acknowledge the sins that we’ve committed, express our sorrow, and ask forgiveness. Express the striving that we will do to avoid sin in the future and make amends for the sins of our past, and therefore reconcile and restore relationships in our life.”

Listen to the full reflection below:

St. Joseph’s Workshop with Father Matthew Spencer airs weekdays at 7:00 p.m. Eastern/4:00 p.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.