The Anatomy of a Good Apology

I’ve been reading Why Won’t You Apologize? by Harriet Lerner. It’s an interesting book and I have (surprise, surprise) been trying to apply her thoughts on apologizing to my life. I have to believe that my husband is tired of being a guinea pig to my voracious reading list. At least I didn’t challenge him to a duel after reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow–another really interesting book but we won’t be diving into that here.


Lerner brings up some important points and uses examples from her therapy practice. A lot of the examples she uses are based on some serious gaps in trust, like the mother of a child who was sexually abused by her husband or marital infidelity. I’m not going to address that type of apology here, but will instead look at how you can be a better apologizer at work and at home.


Here is the anatomy of a good apology:


Timing.  My husband and I had an argument a few weeks ago. I kept peppering him with questions. What he really needed was space. It’s easy to get flooded (when all your blood goes to your primitive reactive brain) and you start saying things you didn’t intend to say (i.e. swearing, belittling comments, etc.). This means it’s not the right time to talk. Certainly, not the right time to apologize. Take a break. Take a walk. Go to sleep. Pick a time that is more conducive to a calm discussion. You will be able to think better. So if your boss yelled at you for forgetting to send the meeting invite, take a break and find a time when you aren’t standing on the back of your heels.


Avoid “but”.  As Learner wrote, “Little add-ons like ‘but’ (“I’m sorry I forget your birthday, but I was stressed out with work”) negate responsibility. A heartfelt apology means accepting responsibility for our mistakes without a hint of excuse-making or evasion, even if the other person can’t do the same.” Think of the word “but” as an eraser of what the very first part of the sentence started with. “I’m sorry I was late, but you didn’t send a meeting invite” or “I’m sorry I didn’t feed the dog, but you never feed him.” Doesn’t feel very sincere when you are on the receiving end of that, does it?


Avoid “if”. As Learner wrote, “‘If’ will turn your sorry into a not-sorry-at-all.” “I’m sorry if that joke I made at the meeting offended you.” I know I am guilty of using “if”. It keeps the apologizer at arm’s length. It leaves the responsibility with the injured party. “I’m sorry I didn’t inform you of the changes” is much better than “I’m sorry if you didn’t know the changes.” The first example takes the responsibility rather than pushing it onto the other person.


Brevity.  This is my loquacious Achilles heel. As I mentioned earlier, I can pepper someone with a thousand questions, especially when I feel injured. Think through an apology and cut it down to one sentence or two. “I’m sorry I was asking a thousand questions last night. I feel like I was overwhelming you.” Lerner has a great example of someone apologizing and going on and on and on, rehashing the situation. This causes the injured party to tune out. They stop listening and it doesn’t feel sincere. This also means not bringing up what Lerner calls injured party’s “crime sheet”. I have a Rolodex of every “crime” my husband has ever committed and I sort by date, type and flavor at will. Put the crime sheet a way. Maybe even burn it.


Own it.  This is difficult for a lot of folks and is likely based on how you were brought up. There is a tendency for women to be more likely to apologize and be the peacemakers, but that’s not the rule. Some people feel shame at admitting that they are not perfect. To apologize is to admit imperfection. How many of us had our mothers tell us to “Go say you’re sorry to little Suzy.” I’m not suggesting that our mothers were wrong. More so, it’s to point out we all have different operating systems based on our life experience. If you don’t typically apologize, this is the most difficult step. It’s not easy. See if you own a piece of the responsibility.


Listen.  As Stephen Covey famously wrote, “First seek to understand.” Once you have apologized, listen to what the injured party has to say. They may not say anything. They may want to talk about how they feel. They may just want to move on. Don’t hold onto an agenda outside of the apology. Everyone’s deepest need is to be heard and understood. It’s the greatest gift you can give.


Think through your next apology and see if you can clean it up a bit. Who do you need to apologize to?

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