by Harriet Lerner, PhD
Some time back I received an apology that was so sleazy, shaming and blame-reversing that it will forever stay etched in my memory. It’s an excellent example of how easy it is to ruin an apology. And although you may not identify one bit with this guy I’ll call Leon, none of us are immune to offering apologies that are not apologies at all.
Leon oversaw promotion for an important conference where I was to speak. The organization had a photo of me taken a generation ago, so I sent him a recent picture to use in both print and online promotion—when I showed up, I wanted to resemble the picture. Leon posted the wrong photo online and in the printed brochure and then failed to correct the online photo when I requested twice that he do so.
In our final conversation–during which I felt like putting a stake through his forehead–
Leon offered several “apologies” that went like this: “I’m sorry but I can’t pay attention to every detail. I’m not perfect.” “I’m sorry that the photo is so important to you. I don’t think that the participants are as involved as you are in how you look.” And finally, “Okay, I apologize. I didn’t know this was such a sensitive issue for you.”
I would have much preferred if Leon had not apologized at all, because a false, blame-reversing apology only repeats and deepens the original injury. While I was not pleased with his combination of incompetence, disrespect, and defensiveness, I can now thank him for providing a sterling example of the two most common ways any of us can ruin an apology without ever intending to. Recognizing the most common elements of a failed apology lays the groundwork for knowing how to give a successful one, so let’s unpack Leon’s faux “sorry.”
“I’m sorry but I can’t pay attention to every detail.” Watch out for the word “but.” This sneaky little add-on will undo the sincerity of any apology. It doesn’t matter if what you say after the “but” is true. It will make your apology false.
“Okay, I apologize. I didn’t know this was such a sensitive issue for you.” A common way we ruin an apology is to basically say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” or “I’m sorry that what I said/did made you upset.” There is no accountability here. You’re saying, in effect, “I’m sorry you reacted the way you did to my perfectly reasonable behavior.” A genuine apology focuses only on our wrongdoing and not on the other person’s response.
When the other person matters to us, a good apology can be deeply healing while a bad one can compromise a relationship or even end it. Consider three more relationship-busting sorrys that you should take care to avoid.
“I apologize for yelling and now I’d like you to apologize for provoking me.” If someone is confronting us about our bad behavior, we automatically want to bring up his or her crime sheet. In my marriage, for example, I like to apologize for exactly my share of the problem as I calculate it (never more than 47%) and I expect Steve to apologize for his share, also as I calculate it. Since we don’t always do the same math, the apology process can swiftly go south.
A good apology does not bring up the other person’s bad behavior, but focuses only on expressing responsibility and remorse for our part. It’s important to understand that the apology isn’t the only opportunity we’ll ever have to address the issue. Rather, the apology is the chance we get to lower the intensity, and establish the calmer ground that will allow the relationship to move forward with good will. Save your complaints for a different conversation.
“I apologized ten times and so please let’s drop it already.” “I’m sorry” is not a way out of a difficult conversation, yet we reflexively use it that way when we’re under fire. There is nothing more difficult than dialing down our defensiveness and listening with an open heart to the pain and anger of the hurt party when that person is accusing us of causing it. We automatically listen for the exaggerations, inaccuracies and distortions, which will inevitably be there, rather than listening for the essence of what the person is trying to tell us, and apologizing for the part we can agree with. Yet no apology will have meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the injured party’s anger and pain.
For large hurts, it’s not the words “I’m sorry” that soothe the other person and make the relationship safe again. More than anything, the hurt party needs to know that we really “get it,” that our empathy and remorse are genuine, that their feelings make sense, that we will carry some of the pain we’ve caused, and that we will do our best to make sure there is no repeat performance. All this requires listening under fire, and often on more than one occasion.
A good apology means investing in the relationship and the other person’s happiness. It means accepting responsibility for our part (and only our part) without a hint of excuse-making, evasion, obfuscation, or blaming. Learning to apologize wisely and well builds both personal integrity and successful relationships. Now that you know how to muck it up, don’t.
*Harriet Lerner, PhD is one of America’s most respected relationship experts. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles and popular books, including the New York Times bestseller The Dance of Anger. Her forthcoming book, WHY WON’T YOU APOLOGIZE?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts (Touchstone) is on sale now.