The 5 Ways to Apologize Properly, According to Dr. Gary Chapman

Understanding what someone needs from your apology can make it much more effective.
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Monica Gabriel Marshall
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Understanding what someone needs from your apology can make it much more effective.

For the love! I thought to myself in exasperation. Why won't she just let it go?? We had been driving for too long, she was hungry, and I had read her the wrong directions—as I am prone to do—and we missed our turn. It was an honest mistake, and I didn't see why an apology was even necessary in the first place.

My sister and I are the best of friends, but we have been in this situation one too many times before—usually when driving together in fact. She just wishes I would say "I'm sorry" and be done with it, and I insist that I said I was sorry (but that it wasn't truly my fault anyway). She walks away hurt, and I walk away frustrated. To me, it felt like we were speaking two totally different languages.

Turns out, I was on to something.

I recently came across a book called The Five Languages of Apology by Dr. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas—the very same Dr. Chapman who gave us The 5 Love Languages. In The 5 Love Languages, Chapman explains that there are five languages (words of affirmation, physical touch, gift giving, acts of service, and quality time) to communicate our love. While we all appreciate each love language, each of us feels most loved with gestures in just one (or maybe two) of those categories. Likewise, in The Five Languages of Apology (the updated version is called When Sorry Isn't Enough)we learn that there are five languages of apology and we all receive the most sincere apology when one primary language is spoken.

According to Chapman and Thomas, the five languages of apology are:

  • expressing regret
  • accepting responsibility
  • making restitution
  • genuinely repenting
  • requesting forgiveness

For many of us, there is one primary language of apology that is most important. In the case of my sister, I was accepting responsibility, but what she really wanted was for me to express regret. You see, all that time my sister and I really were speaking two different languages.

It's time we learn the five languages of apology and learn to speak each one fluently. Let's also pay close attention to that primary language that speaks to our loved ones—and to us—the most.

01. Expressing Regret

For most people, an apology is not really an apology unless they hear the words "I'm sorry." For many of us, in order to truly forgive, we need to see that the person who has injured us regrets what they have done. This is the most essential of the elements of an apology, but some people feel it more keenly than others.

02. Accepting Responsibility  

We can all find good reasons and explanations for why we behave badly. "She was pushing my buttons"; "I was running late"; "She hurt my feelings." Whatever the reason, it doesn't change the fact that what we did was wrong or hurtful to another person.

While this element of an apology is similar to expressing regret, many of us also very much need to hear admission of responsibility. Someone could say "I'm sorry I hurt you," but in many cases it's important for us to accept responsibility for having caused the hurt too. "I was wrong to yell at you," or "I'm sorry I spaced out while navigating; that was my fault," sometimes expresses the most sincerity.

03. Making Restitution

As Chapman and Thomas explain in their book, sometimes just expressing regret and taking responsibility for our actions is not good enough. Sometimes we need to make restitution to make an apology sincere. A great example is when a child swipes a toy from another child. We don't just encourage the child to apologize; we also encourage the child to return the toy that was stolen.

But when you hurt a family member, a friend, or spouses feelings, restitution isn't about returning something that was stolen, it's about reassuring the other person that they are loved. Chapman and Thomas explain that the damage of an angry word or a betrayal is that we believe that, if that person truly loved us, they would not have done such a hurtful thing. In this case, Chapman and Thomas suggest we rely on the five love languages to make restitution by assuring the injured party of our love for them.

04. Genuinely Repenting 

Chapman and Thomas remind us that the word repentance means "to turn around" or "to change one's mind." An apology loses its sincerity if you give your loved one no assurance that you will try not to make the same mistake again.

For some of us, and perhaps depending on the severity of the offense, a sincere apology requires that the person verbalize their desire to never hurt you in that way again. We all know that bad habits can be hard to break, but Chapman and Thomas suggest that in addition to telling your loved one you want to change, you make a plan to ensure success.

05. Requesting Forgiveness

This final element of an apology can be the hardest, but for many people it is also the most important. Requesting that someone free you from the guilt of your offense is a powerful thing and will ultimately set both people free.

Chapman and Thomas explain that asking forgiveness is difficult for the asker because it means relinquishing control of the fate of the relationship, it means accepting the possibility of rejection, and it means admitting failure. Likewise, it's difficult for many of us to forgive because it can often mean relinquishing our sense of justice. But, despite the difficulty, actually saying the words "Will you forgive me?" has proven for many people to be the secret to healing and renewal of relationship.

Many of us have seen marked improvement in our relationships thanks to Chapman's love languages. I know that I, for one, can't wait to put these apology languages to good use as well.

Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan