Everyone finds places where they’ve made a mistake, done wrong, or inadvertently harmed someone else, and an apology is called for. At some level, everyone needs to learn how to better apologize, to heal the hurts that they have caused. Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts is a way to learn more about how to do that – and what prevents us from doing it. Harriet Lerner’s work is familiar to me: having been referred to by Brené Brown, I’ve previously read The Dance of Connection. When I was doing my post, Anatomy of an Apology, I didn’t know that she had written about apologies.
I’m happy to say that she didn’t disagree with anything I said – but she did add more than a few enhancements that make sense for anyone struggling with apologies.
Perhaps the best place to start is to understand why we care about apologies in the first place. It’s simple: we want to maintain relationships. Whether it’s the damage that permeates families when there’s an argument that splits the family, like discussed in Fault Lines, or simply friendships or community relationships that are blocked by hurt feelings, we need to find ways to rebuild relationships after a harm has been done.
Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace explains one of the reasons that we want to apologize to others: to address a betrayal. However, that’s far from the only reason. Anything that causes the other person pain or frustration is a reason to apologize.
As humans, we have a tendency to want to apologize for precisely the amount of the pain of a disagreement – as we calculate it. However, as a comedian once said, “Anyone that believes that relationships are a 50/50 arrangement doesn’t understand women or math.” When we try to calculate the amount of the situation that we’re responsible for, we’ll invariably calculate it differently than the other party. As Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So, we all believe we’re better than we really are. It’s a better strategy to work on an apology that allows for the concept that the other person may believe more of the situation is ours to own than we believe.
Ifs and Buts
“I’m sorry if…” and “I’m sorry, but…” are both non-apologies. I called out “but” but not “if” in my post. There’s a nuance to “if” as a part of an apology. It indicates that the person issuing the apology either doesn’t know what they’re apologizing for – or they’re unable to accept that it’s your truth and thereby validate it.
No Golden Ticket
Another challenge with apologies is when the party issuing it expects that it’s an instant ticket for forgiveness, like it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card that they can pull out and use at any time. This confuses both forgiveness and how it differs from forgetting. Forgiveness cannot be demanded; it can only be offered. The person issuing an apology cannot expect forgiveness – though sometimes that is the implicit ask when an apology is offered.
Lerner is careful about forgiveness. She shares that forgiveness need not be binary yes or no but rather a continuum between yes and no – or zero and 100. Her perspective on the reason for forgiveness and how it works is nuanced, and in all candor, I’m not entirely sure that I understand the distinction that she’s trying to make. I’ve always looked at forgiveness as a willingness to let go of the transgression and move forward.
There are several versions of a story of Buddhist monks, who were traveling and came upon a woman who asked to be carried across a river. One monk did; the other monk, after some time, confronted the first about having broken his vows to never touch a woman. He replied that he had only carried the woman across the river, and the second monk had carried her for much longer. Inherent in this is acceptance or completion.
The assumption that things will be the way they were before – which is another common expectation – also confuses forgiveness with forgetting. Forgiveness doesn’t require that we trust the other person again. We need not trust them in the same way or to the same degree. It only means that we need to move forward. Ultimately, the desire for forgiveness is to return to the same level of trust that happened prior to the incident. While this may happen, it doesn’t have to if the situation warrants a change in trust. (For a comprehensive understanding of trust, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.)
Responsibility, Remorse, Restitution, and Reassurance
Lerner quotes John Kador from Effective Apology with, “We apologize when we accept responsibility for an offence or grievance and express remorse in a direct, personal and unambiguous manner, offering restitution and promising not to do it again.”
While this may be the most effective apology, I rarely see it in real life. Often, the reassurance that the person will avoid doing it again is missing. You’ll notice that I weakened Kador’s word “promising,” because I don’t believe it’s right to make promises that people can’t keep. In some cases, a promise is too strong a commitment, particularly when the offense is minor.
Otherwise, it’s important to take direct responsibility. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), we see the impact of half-hearted acceptance of responsibility. Remorse is carried by the words “I’m sorry.” Restitution is also missing from most apologies, as there’s very little can be done when we’re speaking about hurt feelings. Obviously, if there’s a tangible loss for which restitution can be offered, it should be.
Sometimes, we’ll receive a criticism for which the person may desire an apology through our actions but in ways that would be unanticipated and unfair. I volunteered for years with a twelve-step program where there were different types of addicts and hurting people. Once of the things we were constantly monitoring were the complaints from people about triggering comments and media. With regularity, we’d trigger someone in the audience with a song or a media clip or the presenter for the week. (See The Coddling of the American Mind for what triggering is.) It became a very complicated dance.
In some cases, the offending element was clearly over the line. For instance, I was at an event that was honoring fallen heroes, some of whom died by suicide, and a song that was promoting suicide was played. (The good news is that I was apparently the only person in the audience who caught it, having been conditioned to look for it.) More frequently, we weren’t sure whether the element could reasonably be considered triggering. We ultimately learned to walk the line together to share content that we needed for the rest of the audience knowing that we would get some complaints, and we’d talk to them individually to work through them having been triggered.
The tricky part from the apology perspective is to acknowledge the feeling, say we’re sorry we caused it, and offer restitution in the form of conversations to help them become less triggered – which is good for them. Missing would be reassurance we won’t do it again – because, in some cases, we knew the media was on the schedule in the future.
When others offer criticism, we can honestly share, “I’m sorry I didn’t see it that way. I’m sorry it was offensive to you. Thank you for the feedback, it’s the only way I can try and prevent this in the future.”
Sometimes, the criticism rises above the simple and moves into a character attack. These are obviously more challenging. Instead of saying that we’ve done wrong, they’re saying that we are wrong. They’ve crossed the land of guilt and moved on into shame. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more about the differences between shame and guilt.) Here, Lerner shares wisdom and stories that affirm that an apology need not be immediate. A simple response that conveys that you want to understand the feedback and process it before responding is sufficient.
The problem is that we can apologize for what we did but not who we are. It will take time and processing to separate the characterizations from the events that caused people to make those characterizations.
Lerner explains that even the most heartfelt apology may fall flat if the person receiving the apology doesn’t feel heard or believes their concerns were not understood. Having been on the receiving end of someone trying to apologize but refusing to take the time to understand what it was that they did that was hurtful, it intensified the hurt and moved us further apart rather than closer together. Instead of bringing us closer together, the failed apology moved us further apart.
It moved us further apart, because it was a strong signal that my relationship wasn’t even worth understanding my pain.
The Deception Box
The capacity of the human mind to deceive itself is impressive. It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which one can warp their perceptions to allow them to accept their actions and maintain the personas they have for other people. In Leadership and Self Deception, the situations that lead to self-deception are called “boxes.” Once someone enters a space where they’re not honest with themselves, they’ll often continue the distortions and attacks on others. Lerner explains that once we become defensive, it’s hard to get back to a place of openness where we can hear others and can respond more wholly.
When inside the boxes, it’s also hard to know yourself. When you “believe your own press,” you can’t hear your faults or opportunities for improvement. You can’t express yourself to others at a level that exceeds your own understanding of yourself – and that can be seriously limiting.
Sometimes, there isn’t an apology to be offered. The person who was harmed may have cut off communication to protect themselves from further harm or may simply be unable to hear an apology at this time. The person who is willing to apologize must realize that there are times when the apology could be harmful – and times when we’ll be prevented from offering it.
Ultimately, the decision to make an apology where we’ve wronged someone – or where there is a rift – is the decision about whether we want to continue to be right or whether we want to be in a relationship. This is at the heart of Lerner’s other book, The Dance of Connection.
No matter what the circumstances, we can all find useful information in the question Why Won’t You Apologize?