A Conversation with Harriet Lerner
Harriet Lerner is a clinical psychologist and author of the internationally renowned New York Times bestseller The Dance of Anger, a book that has helped countless men and women identify the sources of their anger, and use it for positive change. (In fact, Brené says of The Dance of Anger: "No exaggeration, no hyperbole, it changed my life.") So, we couldn't be more thrilled to announce that Harriet and Brené have teamed up to bring you a new workshop: Heartfelt: A Course on the Power of Apologizing, designed to help us identify the nine main ingredients in a heartfelt apology, not to mention how to recognize the mischief of defensiveness in ourselves, and how to restore connection with the non-apologizers in our lives. We had the opportunity to sit down with Harriet to ask her a few questions about apologizing -- and as expected, her words were enlightening. Here's what she had to say.
COURAGEworks: Harriet, it's such an honor to sit and speak with you! Let's start from the very beginning: why is apologizing so important?
Harriet Lerner: It's great to speak with you, too! I think we all know the answer to this from our own experience. It feels excruciating when someone hurts us, and they don't care about our feelings, or really listen to what we need them to hear. The absent or bad apology can compromise a relationship, or even end it.
Cw: Absolutely -- and I love how you talk about how a heartfelt apology, in particular, is a gift. Tell us more about that.
HL: The heartfelt apology can free the hurt party from feeling trapped in anger, bitterness and obsessive rumination. It can allow the hurt party to feel safe and soothed in the relationship again, knowing that their pain can affect us, that we care about their feelings and that we're capable of taking responsibility for what we've said or done -- or not said or done. The heartfelt apology says to the hurt party, 'Yes, I get it, I screwed, up, and your feelings make perfect sense."
Cw: Sure, but we don't always get it right. What are the two most common ways we mess up when we apologize?
HL: Little add-ons like "but" ("I'm sorry I forgot your birthday but I was stressed out with work") or "if" ("I'm sorry if that joke I made at the meeting offended you") will turn your sorry into a not-sorry-at-all. Another 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 made you upset." There's no accountability here. You're saying, in effect, "I'm sorry you reacted the way you did to my perfectly reasonable behavior." A true apology focuses on our behavior, and not on the other person's response.
Cw: That makes sense. But what about when someone doesn't apologize at all -- should we confront them, or should we just shake it off?
HL: Well, when the other person doesn't apologize, and the bad feeling hangs on, we may need to speak up. The challenge isn't to "confront" the non-apologizer, but rather to share our thoughts and feelings. An example might be, "I felt hurt by your statement last night that I'm a people-pleaser, and that I just want everyone to like me. That doesn't fit my own experience of myself. I left our conversation last night feeling like a smaller person who didn't live up to your standards." Even if the other person stays in defensive mode, we may need to hear the sound of our own voice saying what we know to be true.
Cw: You point out that not all apologies are the same: for a simple mistake, a genuine "I'm sorry" might be enough. So how should we handle more serious hurts?
HL: A true apology for a serious injury or betrayal can be a long-distance run that begins with "I'm sorry," but doesn't end there. It's not the words "I'm sorry" that allow the hurt party to feel safe and soothed in a relationship again. More than anything, the hurt party wants to know that we really "get it," that our empathy and remorse are genuine, that we carry some of the pain we've caused, and that we will do our best to make sure there is no repeat performance. That means that we need to put aside our defensiveness when we apologize, and listen with an open heart to what the hurt party needs to tell us on more than one occasion. No apology has meaning if we haven't listened carefully to the injured party's anger and pain.
Cw: That's really good advice -- which, actually, brings up another point: how do I distinguish between an apology that is self-serving to make myself feel better, and an apology that delivers real, needed healing?
HL: Keep two things in mind: first, an apology is not a bargaining chip that you use to get something back for yourself like forgiveness, or lowering your guilt-quotient. Of course you may hope for these things, but a heartfelt apology is not about you. Second, an apology can feel invasive if someone really doesn't want to hear another word from you. "Leave me alone" means "leave me alone" -- no flowers, cards, chocolates, texts or apology notes slipped under the door.
A whole-hearted apology means investing in the relationship, and the other person's happiness. It means accepting clear, unequivocal responsibility for what we've said or done (or not said and done), without a hint of excuse-making or evasion, even when the other person can't do the same and their feelings seem exaggerated.
Thanks so much, Harriet! To learn more about what it takes to make a heartfelt apology, be sure to join us in Heartfelt: A Course on the Power of Apologizing, now available here on COURAGEworks. (Use code CWTRIBE for 20% off when you register.)