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'Life Kit': How to say sorry


The new year is often a time for reflection. And we are taking some time this week to help you be a better you in 2022. We are revisiting some of NPR's Life Kit podcasts in an effort to help. Today we're focused on how to say you're sorry.

SIMRAN SETHI, BYLINE: I feel like I know this on a gut level. But why is apologizing so hard?

HARRIET LERNER: It's a vulnerable place to be. You have no control over how the other person will respond.

KELLY: That's Life Kit host Simran Sethi talking to Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist and author of "Why Won't You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals And Everyday Hurts." And Lerner has a few tips and a lot of insight on how to get apologies right. Tip No. 1...

LERNER: A sincere apology or a good apology does not include the word but. The but makes your apology false.

KELLY: Tip 2 - don't over-apologize.

LERNER: If you've forgotten to return your friend's Tupperware, you don't have to overdo it as if you've run over her kitten. Over-apologizing creates distance. It interrupts the flow of normal conversation. And it will irritate your friends.

SETHI: So don't overdo. But also - this is takeaway 3 - don't underdo.

LERNER: When you're apologizing for something important, you need to show genuine sorrow and remorse. But when you start, you know, to cry or talk about how terrible you feel, you've made the apology about you.

SETHI: And that brings us to takeaway 4 - focus on the issues at hand and the person who's been harmed.

LERNER: The apology is what lowers the intensity and creates an emotional climate in which a further conversation can occur.

SETHI: That's a critical takeaway. An apology is the beginning, not the end. It creates space for stronger connection. And that connection, Harriet says, should be deepened by the person who is doing the apologizing.

LERNER: No apology will have meaning if we haven't really listened to the hurt party's anger and pain. The hurt party wants to know that we really get it, that we validate their feelings, that we care about their feelings. Understand that for something serious, an apology is a long-distance run.

SETHI: So now that we've got a clearer idea of apology do's, let's circle back to an apology don't.

LERNER: The way we muck up an apology is to focus on the other person's feelings or reactions rather than apologizing for what we said or did. I'm sorry that I offended people by the joke that I told at the meeting. It wasn't my intention. That is not an apology. A good apology will focus first on the words or behavior that you are sorry for, rather than implying that you're so sorry that the other person reacted as they did.

SETHI: So here's a challenge. What if someone comes to you and says, I want you to apologize for X, and you don't feel that you've done anything wrong?

LERNER: We do not apologize for something we don't believe is justified. I mean, that would make no sense at all.

SETHI: But there are times when maybe we can't quite see the error of our ways but perhaps should.

LERNER: When you're being confronted about something that's very painful, and there are exaggerations and you don't want to hear it, to set the intention to listen for the essence of what the hurt party needs you to understand and then also to be able to define your differences and to say, you know, this piece that you wanted an apology for - I've given it a lot of thought. I don't even recognize myself in that picture that you portrayed of me, and I see it differently.

SETHI: None of this is easy. But Harriet has one final takeaway to help us get through these difficult conversations.

LERNER: We are wired for defensiveness. We will automatically listen for the distortions, the exaggerations and the inaccuracies. We listen for what we don't agree with so we can defend ourselves and correct the facts. So I want to challenge our listeners. Set the intention that you will listen only for what you can understand. You will listen to try to wrap your brain around the essence of what that hurt party needs you to get and, even if it's only 5%, that you apologize for that 5% first.


SETHI: There you have it. Thank you to author and clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner.

And now for a recap. To elevate your apologies, tip No. 1 - no ifs or buts. Tip 2 - don't overdo. Keep your attention on the hurt party, not on how you feel. And be genuine. That's tip 3. Tip 4 - stay focused on the current conflict, not on all the rifts that came before. Tip 5 is to remember that an apology isn't meant to be the way to squirm out of a tough conversation; it's a powerful way to grow closer to someone. So this is tip 6 - be accountable, courageous and share what you're genuinely sorry for, even when you feel defensive and want to shut down. Try to meet the moment with an open ear and an open heart.


KELLY: That's Life Kit host Simran Sethi talking with clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner.

On the Life Kit podcast you can get advice from a range of experts on fitness, finance, parenting. Download Life Kit on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts.



If you find yourself constantly scrolling through TikTok or Instagram and you don't feel good about it, come back tomorrow for some tips from Life Kit that will help you move toward a healthier relationship with social media.

Just turn on your radio or ask your smart speaker to play NPR or your station by name. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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