In the past week, I’ve received multiple apology texts from friends related to a variety of topics. Two apology texts stick out to me more than the others. One apology was clearly for social posturing. The person was sending it because they knew that they looked bad to others and didn’t want the stain of their misstep hanging over their reputation. The second apology text was offered without me even thinking that the person needed to apologize for anything. This apology wasn’t about saving face, it was about clearing conscience. Behind the second apology was a soft and humble heart.

The words, “I’m sorry,” are said to be some of the sweetest that a person can ever hear; second only to hearing your own name and hearing “I love you.” However, not every apology is created equal. What do apologies show, and, how can we bravely harness the power to truly apologize?

What Apologies Show

For 25 years I’ve helped parents and children repair family relationships. Parents have asked me about making their children apologize to each other after siblings fight, or they misbehave, and have been noticeably surprised when I’ve told them that forcing an apology may not always be in the best interest of the child.

After talking about the importance of understanding family roles so much, I think some parents are also stunned when I suggest crucial times that they can apologize to their children to help with family healing too.

In order to understand how to truly apologize, how to recognize a sincere apology, and how to teach children about apology, it is helpful to recognize that the act of apologizing is a sign of a person’s condition of heart. At least seven factors influence condition of heart and show us what condition of heart we have.

  1. Allegiance — Who/what do you honor, follow, have loyalty toward, or have sworn an oath to? There are only four options: good/God, evil, self, or others. Allegiance to goodness is an allegiance to God or his laws, while allegiance to evil is loyalty to darkness and rebellion. Allegiance to self is honoring what you want or feel, and allegiance to others is desire to find personal value in pleasing others or making people happy. The only apology that isn’t for selfish or undesirable reasons, is the apology made with an allegiance to good/God.
  2. Teachable — A sincere apology shows that a person is in the act of learning and hoping to learn more about themselves and how to improve.
  3. Repentant — When a person has an allegiance to goodness/God then they feel uncomfortable when they aren’t in alignment with their allegiance. They want to please God more than themselves, so they humble themselves and admit wrong doing with full purpose of heart.
  4. Desire to change — Change stretches us and can cause social and personal discomfort. Yet, there are people who have decided that the discomfort of change is desirable since it ultimately leads to self-improvement and personal freedom.
  5. Value of others — A true apology shows the value of others more than the value of self. In fact, in reality, the value of self, hinges on the ability to honor others and live goodness. A sincere apology isn’t done to allow the giver to escape guilt, but is a sign of embracing guilt and the lessons learned from it.
  6. Gratitude for others — When a person feels a desire to apologize, it is because there is a love of their fellow men. When we value the people around us, then we naturally feel gratitude for them in our lives, even if we don’t agree on everything. This gratitude leads the person apologizing to consider the love that they have for the other person while apologizing.
  7. Openness to others — Apologizing is a vulnerable thing to do. True apologies don’t just share regret, but they also share the journey that the person is on, and the inner thoughts that the person had and has. This means completely opening up to a person. This openness could even invite additional feedback that the person apologizing may not know is coming. But, when a person is fully repentant and has the humble heart ready to apologize, then they should also be ready to take whatever feedback comes with openness and poise.

How To Truly Apologize

Forced apologies may be a step in the right direction, but they can cause a person to develop a habit of doing selfish or insincere apologies and not learn how to fully heal relationships. So how then should a person apologize and teach another how to apologize? With principle.

I teach self-government, which is a very deliberate principle. When something needs to be brought into the light, then being deliberate is always best, because it is also the most honest.

First, recognize regret and apology as a part of a healthy life journey and look for things that need improvement or need apologizing for.

Second, see the people around you as reasonable, and as people. All people are on similar journeys and all have to admit wrong doing sometimes. So, expect that if you admit wrong doing to someone in your life, that they will see the value in what you are doing, because they know apologizing would have value to them too. They aren’t perfect. And, they know you aren’t perfect. So, now that we have that out of the way, just be honest about things with the person.

Third, see what is seen and what is not seen. This means looking at what you know that you have done, but also looking for what you may have done to the person or made the person feel that you might not be immediately aware of. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Also, seeing what is not seen means that you don’t just stop at saying that you are sorry for taking the last cookie, but you explain why you did it, exposing your selfish desires to the person. Exposing what was going on in your heart is what ultimately sets your heart free.

Fourth, embrace self-government and personal reformation, change, and repentance. If a person embraces adjustments and change and even knowing that something needs fixing, then they are more likely to apologize sooner, thereby having a better chance of healing relationships.

Sometimes a person won’t forgive when an apology is given. That is okay. Forgiveness can take time. The other person’s heart my need to do its own softening and changing. They may still be in a battle or judgment mode. But, once you truly apologize, then your heart will be made light because it came into the light of truth.

When teaching children to apologize, don’t forget the importance of example. When they see you have a humble change of heart, admit wrong doing, and apologize to them or another person, then they know that apology is an important part of happy living. Also, talk with them about what an apology should feel like and be like. When they have done something wrong to another person, instead of forcing an apology, correct them for the misbehavior and then have a good parent counseling session with them about the incident and moving forward. Tell the child that they won’t fully be able to socially or behaviorally move on with confidence and forgive themselves if they don’t admit that they need a course correction and even desire it, but that you can’t make them desire it. They must think about their condition of heart and choose to take action themselves. Help them create a plan and a method of evaluating their condition of heart and then have them follow through with you to let you know what they find and ultimately decide to do.

“I’m sorry” was said to me by two different people. One person told me that they know that they have weakness and are working on becoming stronger, and would like to apologize in an effort to help their heart change and be a better person. The second person told me that they wanted to apologize because others thought bad of them and so they hoped I didn’t think bad of them. The first apology was about refining a humble heart, while the second was about social positioning for personal gain or acceptance. Both are steps in a good direction, but the first apology, done with a honest heart, was the apology that confirmed to me the real power in a sincere apology.

Learn how to do an effective parent counseling session so that you can help your child prepare to apologize better in this training.