Apologies require us to say something. It could be something as simple as "I'm sorry" or "I shouldn't have done that to you. Will you forgive me?" All of this is as it should be. But sometimes even wise, appropriate words like these miss a crucial step in the process of reconciliation.
That crucial step is listening. When you apologize, it’s as important to listen as it is to speak.
As a counselor, I have the privilege of witnessing people apologize to one another. It is a sweet mercy when the Holy Spirit burdens a person’s heart with the awareness of personal sin, and the person is moved to ask for forgiveness. The problem is that sometimes the apology comes out sounding like a monologue. There is acknowledgement of wrong, promise of better behavior in the future, and lots of detail about what the offender has been learning about God, grace, being forgiven, etc.
In the right context, these are wonderful things to hear. But when you do all the talking while apologizing to someone you've hurt, you run an extremely high chance of actually further wounding the person. You see, godly sorrow is not only aware that it has wronged someone; it also seeks to understand the specific, personal damage it has caused. The only way to do this is to ask how your sin has impacted the other person.
If you are in a situation where you need to seek someone’s forgiveness, allow me to make a few suggestions:
- Start by speaking briefly. Explain what you’re sorry for with all the clarity, detail, and passion you can muster. Name your sins specifically. Avoid vague generalities.
- Then aim to listen for the last 90% of the conversation. Ask, “How has my sin impacted you?” It’s probably best to offer the chance to respond now or later because the person may need time to think. “You don’t have to say anything right now. I understand you might not be ready to share. I can wait until you’re ready.”
- Obviously, don’t force a response, but if the offended party is hesitant to respond, you can start with a couple guesses to get the ball rolling.1 “I would really like to understand what this has been like for you. I can only imagine that when I _______, you felt _______. Living with the experience of _______ must have been really _______. But I know that's probably not the half of it. Maybe that's not even in the ballpark. Would you help me understand how what I’ve done has impacted you so I can be truly sorry for the real effects of how I hurt you and learn to change?”
- When the one you’ve offended is ready to answer you honestly, your goal is to put yourself in this person’s shoes as you listen. You want to not only hear but also be moved and grieved by the hurt the other has experienced.
- Close the loop (for now): apologize again, owning the specific damage as your fault. Express both thanks for the person’s honesty and sorrow for the hurt you’ve caused. "That makes sense. I can see why that would be really hard. I have never thought about it that way. I am so sorry for putting you in that position/putting you through that/doing something that made you feel _______, etc."
Apologies are hard under the best of circumstances. What I’m suggesting makes them harder still. Yet we must listen and be willing to hear how we have hurt another person. In order to do that without collapsing in despair or flying into a defensive rage, we must cling tenaciously to the forgiveness we have been granted from the One we have grieved most deeply. Only when we taste his mercy, despite how horribly our sin impacted him on the cross, can we own the impact of our failure on others and drown our defensiveness and despair in the ocean of Jesus’ grace.
1 If it is hard for you to imagine what the person may feel, ask a friend what it would be like to deal with the sins you've committed. At the very least, this will help prepare you for the emotional impact of hearing yourself as the bad guy in someone else's story.