The Art of Apology

The other night my two-year-old son wanted me to get a step stool out of the closet. As I was lifting it out of the storage space, he reached for it and his littlest pinky finger got pinched in the hinge that connects the sides of the ladder as it opens.

Yikes! I put the step ladder down, scooped him up and said, “I’m so sorry.”

I wanted to say, “But you need to wait til I get it all the way out.” And “That’s why these things are grown-up things.” And probably 15 other things in order to make myself feel better because I very much didn’t like being responsible for an action that pinched his finger.

But I didn’t ,because I remember listening to a podcast with psychologist Harriet Lerner on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us series that was like a master class on apologies. It was 2 years ago and so well done that I still remember some talking points. One being “When ‘but’ is tagged on to an apology, it undoes the sincerity.” If there is a genuine counter point or excuse to the apology, it needs to happen as a separate conversation.

So I looked up some more details from Dr. Lerner’s book, Why Won’t You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Every Day Hurts. She notes there are cultural differences when it comes to apologies. There are also gender differences – males are more likely to be non-apologizers, women are more likely to be over-apologizers. But for anyone trying to craft a sincere apology, here are some pointers she provides of things not to do:

  • Saying I’m sorry you feel that way: These are apologies that don’t address what happened but instead try to target the emotions of the other party.
  • The “IF” apology: I’m sorry IF you thought is a weaselly effort to not own what happened.
  • The mystifying apology: What is it that the apologizer just said? Apologies that usually are too wordy and talk around the issue, leave the other party feeling confused.
  • The apology as instant expectation of forgiveness: I apologize now you must forgive me is a quid pro quo that undermines the apology as a genuine offering and not just a means to an end.
  • Not listening: If we don’t hear the injured party out, they will not feel heard and any apology will fall short of the entire wound.

So what is a good apology? A simple statement expressing remorse for the action we are apologizing for, owning what we did, not taking more that our share of blame (because that comes across as insincere) and not trying to speak to how the other person feels.

Just thumbing this book reminded me of some old wounds that I was surprised to find hadn’t fully healed over because I can still think of the poor apologies I’ve received. The down-played sorry – “I’m sorry that I called you a ‘brat’ when I was feeling crappy” when that wasn’t the word used at all. The blame-shifting excuse: “I was feeling sick, what was I to do?” when someone no-showed/no-called to the birthday party I threw for her. And the non-apology because the person who caused the injury paraded around all his own hurts as a way to claim he couldn’t be responsible for his actions.

And it also brought to mind incidents where I owed an apology and fell short. The little hitches where I still feel a little guilty or ashamed because my actions were thoughtless, careless or uninformed and I never had the guts to address it properly.

All these memories make the case of how important a good apology is. As Dr. Lerner says, “I believe that tendering an apology, one that is authentic and genuinely felt, helps the other person to feel validated, soothed and cared for and can restore a sense of well-being and integrity to the one who sincerely feels she or he did something wrong. Without the possibility of apology and repair, the inherently flawed experience of being human would feel impossibly tragic.”

This makes me think of one of the best apologies I’ve ever heard. When my friend Jill was feeling tender because something her partner did, he said, “Please tell me what I did so I can never do it again.”

Fortunately having two young kids gives me plenty of opportunity to apologize. Thankfully it’s usually for skinned knees and stubbed toes for which I have no responsibility but am still sorry they happen. Then I get to participate in the healing. As my son said for the pinched finger incident, “Mama, kiss it?” And then we get to continue growing and learning, all the while in relationship to each other.

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18 thoughts on “The Art of Apology

  1. An apt reminder for me thank you along with recent memories of becoming frequently irritated with someone who persisted to use ‘but’ and ‘if’ after apologies, which for me negated the apology. It’s not easy is it, when there is ‘other stuff’ needing attention. A simple, ‘I am sorry’ and deal with ‘stuff’ separately?
    I’m wondering, what are your thoughts on requested/demanded apologies? For me they’re meaningless. When people are genuinely sorry they will say it without the prompts and it’s the genuineness that’s important – for me anyway.
    You have me thinking 🙂

    1. Not who you addressed your comment to, but I think a requested apology in good faith to someone who doesn’t realise they did something hurtful is reasonable.

      If someone has gotten to the point where they feel they have to demand an apology, I’d take it as a sign that they’re feeling very unheard, and their counterpart should sit up and ask themselves why, if it matters at all to them.

      1. Really great points, cj. Dr. Lerner had a quote in the book that stuck with me, “To listen with an open heart and ask questions to better help us understand the other person is a spiritual exercise, in the truest sense of the word.”

    2. I think that’s reasonable to feel like a but and if negate the apology. Especially if it’s repeated. And cj has a great point about asking for an apology in case someone doesn’t realize they’ve been hurtful and you feel unheard.

      On the point of demanding apologies, the book had some good points about how we need to state when we are hurt. And if faced with someone who is not apologize (and maybe even when not), that if we can state that without making the other person defensive – by using “I” in the statement and not overstating the case, it can at least help make it safer for the other person to apologize. (e.g. “my feelings were hurt when” instead of “you were awful when”) As you said, margiran, a demanded apology can be meaningless but voicing our hurts and keeping the dialogue open and not defensive can go a long way!

      1. Yes, I completely agree about stating openly when hurt by using ‘I am feeling hurt’ rather than ‘you hurt me’. It’s important to own the hurt and to let others know rather than establishing a guessing game. Then it’s up to them if they apologise or not. If an apology is not forthcoming, where one is wanted, then maybe a meaningful conversation might help. An apology from someone who is not really sorry and is given only because it’s been demanded really isn’t doing the job for me. Also, I don’t fully understand why anyone would want an apology if it wasn’t truly meant.
        An interesting topic.

      2. Yes, I agree an apology from someone who isn’t really sorry is empty. I keep coming back to the description that Dr Lerner gives apologies and apologizing as a dance. We keep making moves to try to close the distance opened by a wound – and if we do it honestly, it’ll probably work. Demanding an apology is probably not an honest move because it undermines the agency of the other person – kind of like an ultimatum.

        Fun to sort through this with you, margiran!

  2. Such an important point! The word “but” is a conjunction whose purpose is to limit the previous statement. It is like saying “This is true… BUT it really isn’t.” This goes beyond apologies and applies to all kinds of statements. “But” has the purpose of placing conditions, limitations, and modifications on the primary statement.

    As a kid I grew up thinking of “but” as a “weasel word.” As a way of grudgingly admitting something and then escaping responsibility. I heard it used a lot.

    A true apology is always very simple. One should only be sorry for the consequences of an action, never for simply being. Meaning that you sincerely regret something but you don’t invalidate yourself in the process. Good people make mistakes. An apology should also involve an attempt to make it right. “I am sorry I broke your window. Let me clean up the mess and get it repaired.”

    You’re not sorry you took the step stool out of the closet – unless you did so carelessly. You are sorry for your carelessness. You can still be sorry for the negative consequences, even if you weren’t careless. A true apology comes out of empathy for the other person’s pain because you imagine what it feels like and play that feeling to yourself.

    What is the proper form of apology when you are doing something that you consider right and proper and yet it appears to have caused someone else pain because they don’t think it right and proper? Is an apology even appropriate here?

    1. I love what you’ve added here about ‘BUT.” A weasel word – such an interesting way to put it. And the addition of the making it right component to the apology.

      The question you pose in the last paragraph makes me think of when my mom talked with my nieces when they were young (3-ish) about prayer and God. As a pastor’s wife, my mom didn’t think anything of it but my sister-in-law (the mother of the children) was so upset by this “indoctrination.” For my mom, apologizing was like turning her back on her beliefs but she did it anyway because she recognized that the mother was in charge. Maybe this is an example of when an apology might not be the right word/gesture? Seemed like my mom managed to find some way to genuinely express deference and respect.

      1. At some point it stops being “I’m sorry I’ve hurt you.” Then it becomes “I’m sorry you’ve been hurt” and eventually blends into “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Which is a kind of non-apology.

        Why should one apologize about being what one authentically is? Unless you’ve suddenly come to the realization that you are indeed a monster and would change for the better.

        Apologizing because the other person doesn’t like you? Not a good reason – unless you are apologizing in self defense against someone who might harm you. Apologizing from a position of insecurity.

        If your Mom apologized, “I’m sorry I didn’t know you thought this was inappropriate.” it might be a way to avoid being cut off from the child altogether. Lesser of two evils. When the other person appears to be acting unreasonably one might adapt to defuse the situation.

      2. I guess that’s why apologies are a dance. They imply we are willing to be introspective about what we own and the offer up what we can so that the other person can also say their piece. I think in the case of my mom, she apologized for not asking. It was as you said so well, her adapting to diffuse the situation but she could offer that with authenticity so that the relationship could continue.

        I suppose if she was following what Dr. Lerner suggests in the book, my mom could openly and without judgment asked why my sister-in-law had been so hurt by Christianity. But the relationship wasn’t good enough. Maybe we fall short of true apologies in relationships that are more superficial.

  3. Wow wow wow!! I read this post and things came to mind that I never realized I felt better. I definitely need to do a better job at my own apologies as well as expressing why I couldn’t heal from apologies that have been give to me by others. This is SUCH a wonderful post to read this morning!

    1. Thank you, LaShelle! I thought it was so interesting to read the advice and think about how I could do a better job at apologies too. I’m so glad you enjoyed and I’m grateful for your comment!

      1. It IS interesting AND I think every human being can relate. Thanks again for sharing such amazing advice! It definitely changed the way I think. 💪🏻

      2. I clicked through to your blog LaShelle. I’m so sorry about the terrifying home invasion you and your son recently went through. I couldn’t find a way to subscribe, like or comment so I’m assuming that’s by design but I wanted to send on my heartfelt wishes that you all are recovering okay.

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