The Art of Apology

“When the apology meets an offended person’s needs, he does not have to work at forgiving.  Forgiveness comes spontaneously; the victim  feels like his offender has released him of a burden or offered him a gift.” –Aaron Lazare*

Aaron Lazare has done some important study on the dynamics of apology, and the role it plays in processes of forgiveness and reconciliation.  In particular, Lazare  has examined what constitutes an effective apology  and what kinds of apologies fail.  His observations and conclusions are valuable at a number of levels.

Lazare asserts that an effective apology has up to four parts:  (1) Acknowledgment of the offense (2)  Explanation (3) Expressions of remorse, shame, and humility (4) Reparation.   He observes that the most common defect in apologies is in the acknowledgement.  An acknowledgement must be clear in assuming responsibility, stating without reservation who the offender is and who was offended.  Conditional apologies like “If a mistake was made” or “I’m sorry for whatever I did” do not meet this standard.  Claiming to have acted only in response to what someone else has done, as though you had no choice about your own action, also fails in this regard.

In forgiveness workshops, when we discuss the structure of a good apology, people often complain, “But the other person did something wrong, too!”  While assenting that this may very well be true, we focus on our own responsibility and decision-making.  “I statements” are particularly important.  The discipline of articulating our own culpability–without self-justification–reframes the context, creating space for careful listening, experiencing the other in a different way, and initiating the possibility of healing.  This key step, in its very doing, foregoes ‘quid-pro-quo” expectations and interrupts endless cycles of reaction.  In the Teens Acting for Peace ministry, we would call this “respecting self and others.” Apologies need to be offered directly to the offended party and not through conduits.

Only when acknowledgement is complete are we ready of offer a constructive explanation.  If a carefully offered explanation reveals that the offense was unintended and is unlikely to occur again, the long term effects of the damage can be mitigated.  However, many times we have indeed acted with intention, even if we regret it later.  Flimsy or inauthentic excuses  may be quickly seen through, further damaging trust and relationship.  Lazare says, ” There is more dignity in admitting, ‘There is no excuse,’ than in offering a fraudulent or shallow explanation.”   Expressions of humility, remorse, or even shame for what has been done communicate that the offender realizes the gravity of their offense and is willing to recognize the suffering caused.  These are also powerful motivations for repentance.  Jesus’ command, “Do to others as  you would have them do to you,”  can be appreciated more deeply.

Lazare’s fourth step is Reparation, which involves some sort of real or symbolic compensation offered for the transgression. When damage is tangible,   it is reasonable to replace or restore what has been damaged.  When it is irreversible or intangible, as in the case of insult, humiliation, physical injury of death, the reparation may include ‘a gift, an honor, a financial exchange, a commitment to change ones ways, or a tangible punishment of a guilty party.’  In any event, something compassionate, thoughtful, and costly is called for.

Apologies that contribute to healing meet psychological needs of those who have been wounded.  Lazare identifies seven: (a) Restoration of dignity (b) Affirmation that both parties share values and agree that what happened was wrong (c) Validation that the victim was not responsible for the offense (d) Assurance that the person hurt is safe from it happening again (e)   Reparative justice, when the victim sees that the offending party experiences a cost for their action (f) Reparation, when some form of compensation is received for then pain experienced (g)Dialogue that allows the offended party to express their feelings toward the offender and even grieve their losses. Not all seven need to be met in each specific situation, but several will clearly apply.  Take time to savor each of these key descriptive terms.

Lazare’s work provides us with enormous food for thought and reflection.  In a Christian community, our relationship with God is inextricably related to our relationships with others.  Taking apology seriously  is an expression of our covenantal relationship with God.  While we may be tempted to view these principles in a microcosm, let us endeavor to step back and consider what it might mean for apology to be integral to the ethos of our community.  Might we embrace the realization that the art of apology is integral to being Christian? This careful practice demands the best from us, and removes all “Who goes first?” games.

God’s forgiveness is what enables us to risk this learning; it is unilateral.  While God’s forgiveness is not conditional, our own commitments to apology, accountability, and the gracious flow forgiveness are signs that God’s giving is indeed reshaping our being.

The Lazare quote at the outset communicates the liberating power of an apology.  It will, of course, be the victims that will assess effectiveness.  But I also believe that that the steps described here may also have a freeing, unburdening effect in the life of the contrite person.  Freedom from bondage is always the stuff of salvation.


*For reference: