My daughter was watching television in the family room while I sorted mail on the dining room table. I heard her yell, “I want Jesus. Jesus!!!! I waaant Jesus.” Thinking she needed some sort of spiritual help (and who better to give it to her than her spiritual-leader mother), I ran to the back room and asked, “What do you mean you want Jesus?” She looked at me like I imagine she will during her teenaged years and yelled, “Cheez-Its! I said, ‘Cheez-Its.’ I waaant Cheez-Its.” Leaving the room, I thought how easy it is to misunderstand one another, even about something as simple as Cheez-Its.
Life is difficult. Relationships are also difficult. We bring to every relationship a life stuffed full with the patterns and pains we have gathered from our previous relationships. This collection of difficult and life-giving experiences, beliefs, feelings, needs, and desires drives the ways we relate. In addition to bringing our collection of old stuff, we bring a bunch of hopes and expectations. We may project our needs onto the people we relate with, expecting them to be and do all that we have hoped for. Obviously, all this stuff coming from both parties makes communication enormously difficult. As a result, we mess up. Inadvertently or with intent, we hurt one another. Maybe we say something hurtful. Or we fail to give care in the face of need. Or maybe we simply fail to pay attention to the one we are with. All this seems pretty obvious; we’re human, we’re imperfect, we fail one another all the time.
As both a coach and a spiritual leader, I know that misunderstandings happen. While I never set out to hurt those I minister with and to, I know that I do. And as much as I hope that tomorrow will be different, I know that tomorrow I will be the same broken human being I am today. Even though I will try to do my best, I will fail again and again at this job God has called me to do. Because I know that I will hurt and disappoint people, I’ve learned how to apologize.
A FOUR-STEP PROCESS
Repentance is tough. Apologizing, the step in the process that requires us to admit our fault to the person we have hurt, can be even harder. In my experience, apologizing is a four-step process: hearing our sin, saying we are sorry, making it right, and asking for forgiveness.
Hearing Our Sin
One of the most important and difficult parts of the apology process is hearing how we have hurt another person. It’s not comfortable to hear about our mistakes. We want to defend ourselves. We want to say, “No, you’re wrong, I’m not that bad!”
Instead, we need to be still and listen. It’s always helpful to the person we have hurt if we can attempt to understand how our words, action, or inaction might have been hurtful. It’s important that we hear everything the person needs to say. In my experience, the best way to do this is to listen quietly and then ask, “Is that all?” If not, say, “Tell me more.” We can repeat this invitation until the person we have hurt tells us that they are finished speaking. When they are done telling us their story, it is helpful to check that we have understood them. “Is this what you are saying?” we ask, repeating the story they have told us. We do this until we get it right.
Saying We Are Sorry
We take responsibility for our failure—intended or not. We say, “I’m sorry.” We do not qualify our apology by saying, “I’m sorry…
. . . if you thought I was trying to hurt you.”
. . . if you took offense at what I said.”
. . . if you felt that way.”
. . . if you heard me say that.”
When we qualify our apology, we avoid taking responsibility, and we demean the other person. It’s as if we are saying, “Well I had no hand in this hurt. I’m sorry you . . .
. . . are so sensitive.”
. . . expect so much.”
. . . misunderstood.”
. . . are confused.”
. . . don’t hear well.”
Apologies do not need a lot of words. The best apology is a simple, “I’m sorry.”
Making It Right
Misunderstandings and mistakes provide us with the opportunity to better the relationship. Both parties need to discuss what can be done to bring healing. That includes asking the questions:
- What do we need to do or say to make the relationship right again?
- What does this situation teach us about needs that have not been met in the relationship?
- What does this situation teach us about the most helpful ways to express these needs?
- What do we need to do or say differently from now on?
Often, the fixes in these situations are quite simple. Maybe our congregational member needs some verbal indication that we heard and understood her. Perhaps we need to receive clear requests for help—hints are not enough. If we do our work together, we will end the conversation with a better relationship than we began with.
Asking for Forgiveness
Before we set aside this chapter in our lives, receiving forgiveness is critical. As a friend of mine was saying the other day, we’re not so comfortable with these words, “I forgive you.” We’re much more likely to say, “No big deal,” “Don’t worry about it,” or, “What’s done is done.”
But none of these words has the power of “I forgive you.” To say “I forgive you” is to say we are letting go of any claim for punishment or payment. We are ending our hold on the other person. We are setting them free.
In order to move forward in any relationship, we need to know that our sins are forgiven. It’s hard to be content with the “no-big-deal” phrases when we suspect that this was a big deal. The people in the relationship need to move on from a place of freedom, no longer worrying that the sin will plague the relationship. If the wronged person does not offer forgiveness, simply ask, “Do you forgive me?”
ACTIONS TO AVOID
Most of us have developed ways of dealing with conflict. Some of these habits may become reflexes, mostly unconscious habits. We often develop these habits as a way of protecting ourselves from being hurt in a relationship. But self-protective habits can also halt communication, keeping relationships from growing. The following actions are self-protective habits that are not helpful in a conflicted situation.
Nobody likes conflict. Some deal with it by practicing avoidance. Instead of treating the complaint seriously, we may make a joke, minimize the situation, leave (physically or emotionally), or brush off the complainer.
What is it they say in sports? The best offense is a good defense. That may be true in sports, but it can make a mess in a personal relationship. Some of us react to conflict by defending ourselves. This may mean explaining our actions or blaming other people or events for our behavior. We may place our need to be right—and defend our rightness—over our care for the other person or the relationship.
When an animal feels cornered and sees no escape, it attacks. Humans do too. In response to confrontation, we may avoid taking responsibility by attacking the person who raises the issue.
As mentioned above, apologies that avoid taking responsibility by shifting the blame to the person who has an issue with us are not apologies. An apology takes full responsibility for hurting an
When Apology Is the Only Song
Sometimes relationships, even professional ones, can develop unhelpful patterns. Kenny Rogers sang, “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” Coaching or ministry relationships can become mostly about “how you done me wrong” and less about moving forward. In these times, when apology is the only song you sing, ending the relationship may be healthier than continuing a relationship that is frustrating for both parties.
Hearing how we have failed or disappointed God and one another can be some of the most painful moments of our lives. In order to repent, we must stay in the room with people who are telling us the truth about ourselves. We need to hear the people who have hard things to say to us no matter how much it hurts. We need to turn toward the relationship, toward the ones we have hurt, be it God, client, spouse, parishioner, child, or friend. We apologize and ask for forgiveness. We do all of this knowing that we rest in God’s hands. Our repentance, our work, and our words, cannot save either us or the relationship. Only God can.
Adapted from A Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching , copyright © 2006, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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A Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching by Rochelle Melander
This is not a “how to be a coach” manual; rather, it brings the lessons and insights of the coaching world to ministers and other spiritual leaders in a way that is uplifting and relevant for their work. The tools provided in this book will help leaders understand themselves and enable them to strengthen their definitions for healthy living, raise their awareness about their own life and relationship skills, and improve their skills in relating to individuals and groups.
The Honest to God Church: A Pathway to God’s Grace by Doug Bixby
Bixby recommends we embrace the concept that we all are saints and sinners simultaneously. Churches that do this raise disciples who readily admit their sin and brokenness while anchoring their lives in God’s grace and working to spread the good news of that grace to the world. Rich in theological insights yet easy to read, The Honest to God Church challenges us to respond to Jesus’s call to come as we are, not as we think we ought to be.