This Book About Apologies Changed My Life

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Last month, for a story about public apologies, and the refusal to make them (or the tendency to make them badly), I interviewed a psychologist named Harriet Lerner, who wrote a book called Why Won’t You Apologize?, which was published in 2017. For reasons I found hard to articulate, I was deeply moved by our conversation, and the humanity and grace with which Lerner approached the subject, so I later decided to buy it on Audible.

In the last few months, I’ve realized that audiobooks, for me, present an ideal format for obligation books — books so culturally relevant or important that I know I should read them, and/or reporting-heavy books with themes that interest me but details that would put me to sleep when read. This is all to say that I bought Lerner’s book on Audible because I wanted to learn something, but didn’t necessarily expect to enjoy myself in the process.

I was wrong, and I apologize. (Heh.)

These words, for most people, are difficult to say, and perhaps even harder to mean. This is something I think I knew, subconsciously, but not until reading Lerner’s book did I think about why, or attempt to learn anything from it. Many of us have some basic grasp of what a bad apology looks like — it has a “but,” or some other form of excuse; it fails to take responsibility; it’s defensive and overlong and too-focused on the person giving it. When a famous person apologizes badly (which happens all the time, because, as I learned from this book, all people apologize badly from time to time), we are quick to publicly dissect what’s wrong with the apology, so much so that our conception of a “good” apology has, I think, become defined by what it’s not. But, as my new hero Harriet Lerner has taught me, a good apology is so much more than saying “I’m sorry” without making excuses, or transferring blame. It’s a conversation, and an opportunity, and a vital point of human connection. (You will sound like this after you read this book, too!!)

Did you know, for instance, that good apologies start from a position of curiosity? I did not! Here I will reluctantly admit that I tend to approach apologies from a place of defensiveness, which — in my defense!! — Lerner explains is a natural, physiological reaction we all have. Dialing down that defensiveness is so difficult, she writes, that hardly any apology given in immediate or short-term response to an accusation or confrontation is likely to be a good one. This, alone, is revelatory to me: imagine that we gave each other time to respond? To really think about the issue brought to their attention, and then get back to us?? Imagine a celebrity, post-cancellation, taking a month to themselves to stew, and process, and vent, and only then, finally, addressing the grievance in question. I literally cannot picture it!

I use celebrities as an example because the news cycles surrounding their apologies highlight (and enforce) their too-quick, obligatory, often-insincere nature, but of course we do the same thing in our personal lives, without an audience. When I am upset with my wife, and I tell her so, I want an apology now. Reading Lerner’s book made me question that need — if what I want is understanding, shouldn’t I be more willing to wait for it? If what I want is to be right, is what I lose in my demand for instant acquiescence really worth it??

Lerner’s even-handed approach will be welcome to anyone who’s ever resented being asked to apologize when they don’t think they did anything wrong. Which, again, is all of us. Lerner also has a great deal to teach us about being the apologizer — what has stuck with me most, I think, is her point that people in this position tend to listen for what they don’t agree with rather than what they do. I totally do that. You totally do that. Having it called out, for me at least, cut the tension between my self-image and my actual behavior (a tension which, Lerner writes, accounts for much of our difficulty in apologizing). Because apologizing well takes strength and good self-esteem, Lerner says, we can view it as a challenge rather than a concession — which we can do by, among other things, listening to the hurt part’s grievances for points we can agree with, however minor they might be.

Reading this book made me think about my own past, bad apologies — some of which I’d make better, and some of which I wouldn’t make at all. Lerner is very clear about this, too: don’t apologize when you don’t mean it, because it won’t help either party. When you apologize because you feel like you have to, everyone can tell. Which, again, is why we could all afford to be more patient in waiting for one, if indeed it’s forthcoming.

There are so many lines from this book I’d like to highlight, and write down in a notebook, but because I chose to buy this book on Audible, I cannot. I think I’ll buy a paperback copy, because I want to be able to consult Why Won’t You Apologize as the reference guide to human relations that it is. I don’t really think I’m exaggerating when I say this book has all the answers. It’s a diplomat. It’s a couples’ counselor. It’s a publicist. It’s a self-help guide. It’s a religious text. It’s my best friend. Read it. You won’t be sorry, except for when you are.

This Book About Apologies Changed My Life