You’re Apologizing All Wrong. Here’s How To Say Sorry The Right Way
Over the last few months, we’ve heard a spate of apologies pouring forth from the pens and lips of politicians, businesses, celebrities and even royalty. But psychologist Harriet Lerner says most miss the mark, which is why she was inspired to write Why Won’t You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.
Most of us haven’t been taught how to apologize, and our efforts tend to be deleterious: vague, intrusive, demanding, or full of caveats that can leave the recipient of an apology feeling even worse. “When the apology is absent or it’s a bad apology, it puts a crack in the very foundation of a relationship and can even end it,” Lerner says. And that’s why it is critical to get it right.
A good apology, she explains, is an opportunity for us to take clear and direct responsibility for our wrongdoing without evading, blaming, making excuses, or dredging up offenses from the past. It brims with accountability, meets the moment, and can transform our relationships.
Here are six ways to offer an apology that can help heal, rather than cause additional harm.
Drop your defenses.
“Our automatic set point is to listen defensively,” Lerner explains. “We listen for what we don’t agree with, so we can defend ourselves and correct the facts.” She suggests keeping an open mind and listening with an explicit intention to understand the other person. “Try to wrap your brain around the essence of what that hurt party needs you to get.”
When you’re apologizing for something, it’s critical to show genuine sorrow and remorse. It feels vulnerable to not be in control of the outcome, but as Lerner reminds us, it is also courageous.
No ifs or buts.
A sincere apology does not include caveats or qualifiers. “‘But’ almost always signifies a rationalization, a criticism, or an excuse,” Lerner says. “It doesn’t matter if what you say after the ‘but’ is true, the ‘but’ makes your apology false.”
Less is more.
Keep your apology short and mind the histrionics. “If you’ve forgotten to return your friend’s Tupperware, you don’t have to overdo it as if you’ve run over her kitten.” Over-apologizing is not only irritating — it disrupts the flow of the conversation and shifts the focus away from the person who needs to be attended to, Lerner explains. “You’ve hijacked the hurt party’s emotionality and made the apology about you.”
Your attention when apologizing should be on the impact of your words or deeds, not on your intention. Zero in on the situation at hand and stay attuned to the needs of the person who is hurting. “It’s not the two words ‘I’m sorry’ that heal the injury,” Lerner explains. “The hurt party wants to know that we really get it, that we validate their feelings and care.”
And remember: A good apology is a beginning, not an end.
In her book Why Won’t You Apologize, Lerner reminds us, “An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication.”
An apology creates an opening. When done with attention and care, it can be a conduit for greater understanding and deeper connection.
Simran Sethi is a journalist who reports on psychology, sustainability and ways to make the world more just. The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Gilly Moon provided engineering support.
We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
Get The 90.7 WMFE Newsletter
Your trusted news source for the latest Central Florida news, updates on special programs and more.GET THE LATEST