Ask Harriet Lerner what she thinks are the two most important words in the English language and she’ll tell you without blinking: “I’m sorry.”
Lerner, a psychologist and relationship expert, says people use apologies incorrectly, doing more harm than good. Or worse, they avoid them altogether.
The consequences can be catastrophic: marriages fail and family members stop speaking to one another. “On a smaller scale, even good relationships suffer quietly beneath the surface when a hurt or insult goes unrepaired,” Lerner points out.
Her book, “Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts,” aims to teach people how to do just that: apologize wisely and well.
Here are five ways you ruin your apologies, according to Lerner:
1. Neglect to apologize. You feel like you’ve waiting too long to offer the apology and you conclude that you’d just make things worse by bringing it up now. It’s never too late to apologize. You can apologize for something you said or did (or didn’t say or do) decades ago.
Get your ‘but’ out of your apology. It almost always signals a criticism.
2. Include the word “but” in your apology. This little word will undo the sincerity of any apology. It almost always signals a criticism, rationalization, or excuse. It doesn’t matter if what you say after the “but” is true, it makes your apology false. Get your “but” out of your apology.
3. Apologize for the other person’s feelings rather than for your own behavior. “I’m sorry that you were so upset by the joke I told at the party” is not an apology. A true apology focuses on your behavior and not on your regret about the other person’s reactions. Try: “I’m sorry I told that joke at the party.”
4. Give a vague, and mystifying apology that obscures exactly what you are sorry for. “I’m sorry that I always seem to disappoint you” is an empty apology. Name the specific words and behaviors that you are sorry for.
“I’m sorry that I showed up twenty minutes late for the dinner you planned.”
5. Use your apology as a quick way out of a conversation you don’t want to have.“I apologized ten times for the affair, so why do you keep bringing it up?” Drop the defensiveness and really listen to the anger and pain of the hurt party for as long as it takes
Snack On This:
Watch Lerner’s TEDx Talk where she explains why some people may never get the apology they deserve.