Saying sorry can take a lot of courage and humility. But that’s not all: for an apology to be effective, it also takes sincerity.
There’s a catch, though: what if the person receiving the apology doesn’t actually believe you are being sincere?
According to author, pastor and counsellor Gary Chapman, that’s where it helps to know the different ‘languages of apology’.
Learning How to Apologise is Crucial in a Marriage
Gary, most famous for his book The Five Love Languages, told Hope 103.2’s Laura and Duncan that apologising well is crucial for a healthy marriage.
“If you don’t learn to apologise effectively, you cannot have a good marriage relationship, because none of us are perfect,” he said.
When Gary’s fellow counsellor Dr Jennifer Thomas observed that often one person’s version of an apology isn’t their spouse’s version, he knew she was onto something.
“It rang with me because [couples] had been in my counselling office for years, arguing over whether or not one of them apologised,” he said. “The wife would say, ‘I would forgive him if he’d just apologise’. And the husband would say ‘I told you I was sorry!’, and she’d say, ‘That’s not an apology’.
Gary and Jennifer embarked on some research, asking thousands of people about the ways they say sorry, and found out that there were five main styles. They turned their findings into a book, originally titled The Five Languages of Apology, and more recently republished under the new title, When Sorry Isn’t Enough.
The Five Languages of Apology
The key to saying ‘sorry’ to your spouse or friend in a way they will understand, is to find out what makes them feel that you are being sincere. Even ask them if you need to.
“It just makes it easier for the person to forgive you,” Gary said. “Because if we think they’re sincere, we’re willing to forgive. But we all judge sincerity on our own idea of what a sincere apology looks like.”
Gary and Jennifer break down apology language into the following five categories.
1 – I’m Sorry I Did That
The first language is expressing regret. You say sorry, but you also say why.
“Always tell them what you’re sorry for,” Gary said. “For example, ‘I’m sorry I lost my temper and yelled at you’. It means, ‘I feel badly about what I did or said’.”
2 – You’re Right: I Was Wrong
The second apology language is accepting responsibility. The key here is admitting you were at fault, and showing someone that you accept you’ve did a wrong or hurtful thing.
Phrases like, ‘I was wrong’, ‘I shouldn’t have done that’, ‘No excuse for that’, are all ways of accepting responsibility.
“For some people, this is what they’re wanting to hear,” Gary said.
3 – How Can I Make This Right?
The third in Gary Chapman’s list of five apology languages is offering to make restitution, with phrases like, ‘What can I do to make it up to you?’, or, ‘How can I make this right?’.
“Some people have never ever thought of doing that,” Gary said. “And if that is what the other person considers to be a sincere apology, then you can say ‘I’m sorry’, but that doesn’t mean much to them. But if you offer to do something to make it right, they see the sincerity in that.”
4 – I Want to do Better at This
Expressing a desire to change is the fourth language of apology in Gary’s list.
“After you’ve done whatever it is that offended them, you’re saying to them, ‘I don’t like that about me, I don’t want to do that again’, ‘I know I did the same thing last month and I don’t want to keep doing this’, ‘Can you help me?’, ‘Can we get a plan so I won’t do this again?’,” said Gary. “For some people, this is what they see as a sincere apology.”
5 – Would You Forgive Me?
The fifth language of apology is a sincere request for forgiveness, with phrases like, ‘Will you forgive me?’, or ‘I hope you can forgive me.’ Gary says this language shows the person you’ve offended, that you value the relationship enough to want to repair it through forgiveness.
“For some people, they’re waiting for that,” he said.