5 Steps to a Perfect Apology

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inside_heartAs we enter the Nine Days, we are reminded of the Talmudic dictum, “kol dor she lo nivneh b’yamav, k’ilu hechrivo,” “each generation in which the Holy Temple is not rebuilt in its days is as if it destroyed it” (Talmud YerushalmiYoma 5a). The Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, sinas chinam, (Talmud Bavli Yoma 9b) In our quest to rebuild the Holy Temple in our days, we work to remedy what destroyed it. Focusing our efforts on unity and getting along with each other are incumbent at this time.

One way to heal the rifts we may have with others is to apologize for any hurt we may have caused. This is an essential skill in any relationship, yet our apologies are often ineffective. An apology is more than just saying sorry. For your apology to make a mark and begin the healing process, you’ll need the following five ingredients.

1) Sincerity– Have you ever received a call before Yom Kippur asking for forgiveness? While the Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah-Hilchos T’shuva 2:10) that it is forbidden to be cruel and not to forgive one who acts for forgiveness, an essential component of the apology is to actually detail what one did wrong. (This is assuming the ‘victim’ is already aware of the offense. If not, there are differing opinions as detailing what one did may cause even more pain.) Offering an apology needs to be sincere and for the benefit of the one who was wronged. If you care more about being forgiven than the pain you caused, your apology is probably not that sincere and will not help in mending your relationship. Put aside your anxiety about merely discharging your obligation and get in touch with the spirit of the law and what an apology is supposed to be about it.

2) Validation– An apology is an opportunity to validate what the other is feeling. Validation does not mean you have to agree. What it does mean is that you put yourself in to the other’s shoes and really “get” where the other is coming from. Really help him/her feel that his/her perspective makes sense. If the other is sharing with you his pain, let him know how valid his feelings are. Don’t just tell him, “I hear” or “ I feel your pain”. Those statements may feel apathetic or patronizing. You really want the other to feel that you “get it.”

3) Don’t give excuses– If you made a mistake and want to make amends, giving excuses only serves to justify your wrongdoing. When you make excuses for your behavior, it cheapens the apology. Again, an apology should be “other-focused”. When you insert your own story, you shift the focus from the other to yourself. It no longer becomes a moment of connection and repair; rather it serves as an opportunity for you to lessen your own guilt or defend yourself. Take ownership and admit what you did. Regret it and resolve not to do it again. These are the steps of t’shuva, which is essentially restoring your relationship to where it was before the wrongdoing.

4) Show contrition– If you really hurt someone, it’s not enough to just say you are sorry once and move on. This is especially where the offense has destroyed the trust in the relationship, such as in the case of infidelity. When I work with couples where one spouse has been unfaithful, I have found it extremely helpful for the ‘affairer’ to repeatedly ask for forgiveness and reassure their spouse. While it does not necessarily mean to grovel before her, if you want to repair the relationship you need to let her know that you really regret what you did. To apologize and expect life to return to normal because you said sorry is unrealistic. This contrition will help reduce the anger that the other may be feeling and will help rebuild the trust.

5) Take action- Talk is cheap. If you keep making the same mistake and hurting someone, there is only so far that words will go to repair the relationship. In order to truly restore the relationship, you need to take action. In the times of the Holy Temple, even if one followed the proper steps for repentance and achieved forgiveness, it was necessary to bring an elevation offering in order to find favor in G-d’s eyes and be as beloved to Him as before the sin (Igeres HaT’shuva Chapter 2). By offering a gift to the one you hurt by changing your behavior, you are sending a message that you are serious about turning a new page in your relationship. Taking action demonstrates your sincerity and gives the one you hurt a reason to trust you again and have hope for the relationship.

While an apology may seem simple, the way in which it is executed makes all the difference in repairing and healing your relationship. When you come across as sincere, contrite, and validating, not making any excuses for your behavior, your apology will be received as heartfelt. If you follow it with action, you’ll restore your relationship to its former state. Let us hope that through mending our relationships, we can wipe away the baseless hatred that prevents the rebuilding of our Holy Temple.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.