The ABCs of Saying Sorry Well

say sorry

A few months ago, I wrote about how to ask for forgiveness when you commit a “felony”—an intentional action or words that seriously wound another person. Now I want to offer some ideas on what to do when you’re guilty of a “misdemeanor”—an unintentional, careless oversight or a minor infraction which, left unaddressed, could prove deadly in the long run.

We can be tempted to diminish the significance of an unintentional wrong; after all, if you didn’t mean to hurt someone, there’s nothing to say I’m sorry for, right? Wrong. Life does not work like that.

As Susan and I were raising our five children, we taught them that when they intentionally said or did something to hurt another person, they should admit their wrongdoing and say, “I was wrong, please forgive me.” Then, of course, not do it again. When they did something unintentionally or by accident, they should say, “I’m sorry.” We tried to help them to understand the difference between their intentional and unintentional acts. So for those unintentional things that are said or done, here are the ABCs (and DEFs!) of saying sorry well.

Acknowledge

Acknowledge the hurt you caused. If your husband or wife points out where you have wronged them, let them know you realize what you have done. “Not bringing the milk home like I said I would must have seemed really thoughtless of me, like your request didn’t matter.” Avoid the temptation to defend or justify yourself, especially if they are snappy. It’s tempting to focus on what they did wrong in their reaction rather than your original offense. If it’s a minor slight, they may not say anything, but you may pick up on their body language so move toward them by admitting where you blew it. Recognizing and respecting their feelings is a key first step towards reconciliation.

Break

Break down where you went wrong. Spell out what it was that you said or did (or did not do) that hurt them. Being specific makes it clear that you really understand where you went wrong and are not simply trying to brush things off. And being detailed can help you avoid repeating the same error in the future by imprinting it on your mind.

Check

Check the temptation to explain or excuse what you did. When you start to offer a reason for the way things went, you’re effectively saying that you really shouldn’t have to apologize. You’re telling them it was no big deal or they were part of the problem. There may be a time and a place for offering your perspective later; but right now, it’s about them, not you. I looked at some of the ways we tend to try to minimize our part in this blog.

Demonstrate

Demonstrate your seriousness by taking real steps not to repeat the failing. Set a reminder on your phone every morning that you need to call home if you are going to be late for dinner. Make a note in next week’s calendar to review how you are doing when it comes to practicing patience while driving in slow-moving traffic and not letting your irritation spill over to others in the car. Remember, you can only manage what’s measured.

Encourage

Encourage them to let you know if you slip in that area again. Inviting them to point out when you say or do (or don’t do) that thing that requires humility. But it is another sign of your genuine sorrow for what happened. Just remember that you asked them when they do say something. Don’t get huffy and grumble that they are “on your case” when you told them to tell you.

Find

Find a way to make it up to them. You can’t undo where you went wrong, but in addition to taking steps to try to make sure that it does not happen again, you can offer a salve where there has been a bruise. If you are late home for family dinner again without warning, take them out for ice cream dessert when you do get back. You’re not trying to “buy” favor, but you are demonstrating that they are important to you. Actions can speak louder than words.

Taking these sorts of steps when you’ve committed a misdemeanor are like clearing away the stone chippings that pile up when you are sculpting something out of stone. Don’t let the bits and pieces of rubble pile up and obscure the sight of the marriage or family you are building together.

Practice working through challenges and drawing nearer to each other. These 7 simple steps through conflict to intimacy might help.

How do you handle “misdemeanors” in your marriage and with your children? Share your experiences below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.