3 Principles That Characterize a Genuine Apology

3 Principles That Characterize a Genuine Apology

Practicing the art of offering a genuine apology.

The stress of the holiday season might be creeping into your daily rhythm. While the holidays are a time of joy and family celebration, this season can be rife with emotional triggers. If you are like most adults, you might feel a little hurried, a bit edgy—and perhaps less patient. In an unthinking moment, you might blurt out an insensitive quip or sarcastic remark. Regret follows.

True Apology


You and I are flawed. We’ve all made mistakes both large and small, including carelessly speaking unkind words, thoughtlessly betraying confidences, and selfishly breaking promises. Optimally, a timely apology follows.

Throughout my life, I’ve received and offered innumerable apologies. Some have been heartfelt, some more perfunctory. As I grow older and hopefully wiser, I have a deepening desire to give and receive apologies that seek to immediately address an offense—and heal a wounded heart.

In his book The Four Things That Matter Most, Dr. Ira Byock includes the phrase “please forgive me” as one of the four statements that matters most in the human experience. For many, these three words can be difficult to speak.

One of life’s lessons is learning the art and value of a genuine apology. While “I’m sorry” and “please forgive me” are essential, restoring a relationship requires more.

You can cultivate the language of a genuine apology in your life by honoring three powerful principles.

#1: A genuine apology communicates accountability.

“I never intended…” isn’t a free pass; it merely shows you were careless and helps you dodge accountability. Moreover, “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. In fact, an off hand or deflective “I’m sorry” often communicates that yes, the offender is sorry—for being caught, but not for the impact of the offense. A true apology is not about the offender’s embarrassment or shame. Additionally, it cannot be a quid pro quo in an effort to elicit an apology from the other party. “But you ….” is not the language of humble accountability. A defensive posture has no place. Rather, when you offer a genuine apology you convey unqualified ownership of your mistake without expectation of reciprocity or any effort to redirect responsibility.

#2: A genuine apology acknowledges emotional impact.

How I feel when I’ve been hurt matters. I want to hear the offender empathetically recognize the pain, sorrow or disappointment I’ve experienced. Conversely, when I am the offender, I strive to see and describe the emotional impact I’ve caused from my loved one’s point of view. In offering an apology that includes stating the harm I’ve caused, my role is not to judge or diminish my loved one’s emotional experience but rather to validate that the feelings are real.

#3: A genuine apology seeks to restore the relationship.

Beyond the pain or sorrow caused by a mistake you’ve made lies the hope for reconciliation. “Will you please forgive me?” requires humility and signals a desire to restore the relationship. Asking for forgiveness conveys respect, and it gives the offended person the opportunity to choose his or her response. Patience may be required, as the injured party might need time to emotionally process what has transpired. Then, seek to make amends.

In practice, a genuine apology sounds like this:

“I know that my words were critical and belittling; I was wrong to speak to you that way (owning the mistake). I know you feel hurt and disrespected and that I’ve caused you pain (acknowledging the impact). I hope you will accept my apology; please forgive me (without deflection or expecting an apology-in-kind). I know it might take some time (being willing to be patient). Our relationship matters deeply to me. I’d like to know if there is anything I can do to make this right (desiring to restore the relationship by seeking to make amends).”

When an apology is genuinely offered, the recipient is far more able to extend forgiveness and grace. Surprisingly, forgiveness heals both parties.

While this post is a departure from my typical writing on healthcare directives, there is a clear connection. It is a sad travesty to see years of unspoken pain or even animosity addressed at the end of life in a hurried effort to make peace—before the person passes on. I’m baffled by a reluctance to offer a timely apology, choosing pride over the opportunity to enjoy years of a restored relationship.

As you reflect on your mortality when you prepare for end-of-life decisions, it affords you an opportunity to consider this: “Do I have any overdue apologies I still need to offer?” You might also ask yourself, “Have I been unwilling to accept an apology from someone in my life?” In one of her most beautiful songs, my friend and artist Sara Renner sings, “If you want to live, forgive.” Extremely powerful words. Such truth.

This holiday season, if you should become aware of an unresolved past offense, or if per chance you make a mistake that hurts a loved one, I hope you will consider the anatomy of a timely and genuine apology.


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