Good advice on how to say sorry

I often blog about public apologies–the Washington Post’s list of top ten celebrity apologies for 2021 is a treasure trove–, but what we really all need help with are private apologies, the ones we need to make to friends and colleagues as we go through life. A podcast on NPR, “Life Kit: How to say sorry,” succinctly summarizes both what to say, and what not to say.

The advice comes from Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist who has written a book about apologies. First, some things not to do: no apology should contain the word “but,” an observation I learned from Peacemaker Ministries decades ago that bears repeating. She also discourages “over-apologizing,” making too big of a deal over a small offense. She reminds us not to make the apology about ourselves, and to listen deeply to the hurt party’s anger and pain so we can express how we understand the impact of what we’ve done.

“Understand that, for something serious, an apology is a long-distance run.” This a wonderful metaphor for the time it may take for an apology to take root. Indeed, this is why Peacemaker Ministries recommends that the final step of our apology is to “allow time.”

Indeed, the celebrity apologies fall short for some of the reasons Lerner identifies: the offender fails to acknowledge the offensive behavior, and/or the apology is addressed to “anyone I may have offended,” making the apology seem to blame the offended party/parties.

The main point is that it is difficult to do apologies well, and it’s worth it to take some time to think ahead about what to say, and what not to say.

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