Have you ever found yourself under fire for saying or writing something you believed to be clearly innocuous? As a public speaker and writer, I can say yes to this a thousand times. Among my early experiences with public tripping-over-my-own-tongue, I recall my first pastorate in 1985 as a 26-year-old newly minted seminary graduate. I’d just preached a fiery sermon when a woman requested a private word with me in the church office.
Her face was reddened and emotional, so I was sure my sermon had likely brought her to repentant tears. Once inside the study, she began without hesitation.
“I’m really very offended. I just can’t believe you said what you did in that sermon.” Over the next five minutes the woman took me to task over what I considered to be the harmless way I’d phrased a sermon thought.
I can’t remember what she found so offensive, nor can I recall how many other times my words have offended during my 15 years of preaching, but wanting to keep my job I’m sure I apologized.
Fast forward into this decade and you’ll find infinite examples of people getting in much deeper trouble than I have ever been for their choice of words.
For instance, Tom Brokaw, retired NBC news anchor, recently apologized after he expressed the need for Spanish-speaking people to better assimilate into their communities by speaking English.
Dr. Megan Neely, Duke university professor, resigned after online petitions expressed outrage over an email she sent to her Chinese graduate students encouraging them to “speak English 100% of the time.”
Was Brokaw the victim of political correctness? Was the professor a casualty of social-media vigilantism? Perhaps, but they still apologized profusely.
If you need to apologize, I think you would do well to heed research conducted by Ohio State University psychological scientist Roy Lewicki and colleagues. A 2016 study concludes that not all apologies are equally effective. Lewicki found that apologies should include six elements:
• Expression of regret
• Explanation of what went wrong
• Acknowledgment of responsibility
• Declaration of repentance
• Offer of repair
• Request for forgiveness
Surprisingly, the analysis found that while the best apologies will contain all six elements, not all components are equal in value.
“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgment of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” Lewicki says in an Ohio State press release.
Rated second is an offer of repair.
“Talk is cheap,” says Lewicki “But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.”
In simple words, if you’re pressed for time or space and can’t include all six elements, just say, “I was wrong, but I will fix it.”
Study or not, Jesus prioritized our need to express a personal apology even above our need to participate in corporate worship.
“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and … suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you… leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God” (Matthew 5:23-24 The Message).
Finally, I conclude by sharing the wisdom of my seminary preaching professor who counseled us to “Choose your words carefully because it’s bad enough to be understood, let alone misunderstood.”
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.