“Why won’t you apologize?”

apologize-coverWhy Won’t You Apologize?   by Harriet Lerner

A review

Confession: Half the reason I gave this book a second look is because of the cover shout-out from my sociology heroine Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, one of the best books I’ve ever read. So, authors and would-be authors, take note: the cover endorsement makes a difference.

Like many self-help titles, Why Won’t You Apologize is full of truths we already know but forget, or wish weren’t true, or just don’t feel like dealing with. But it articulates them in fresh, relatable, easily readable stories and counsel.

Lerner, a therapist and “apology researcher” for 20-plus years, discusses what a meaningful apology is and isn’t, how to deliver one even when you’re the wronged party, how to receive one, how to live without one when you need it, and the role of forgiveness.

We all know when someone’s apology is sincere and when it isn’t, even if we can’t articulate why; Lerner breaks it down. She also explains why some people over-apologize and why some won’t apologize under any circumstance. She delves into trickier territory in a chapter about apologizing “under fire” – when you’re being criticized, fairly or not. She then offers tips on apologizing to those “defensive” people.

The last third of the book deals with the topic of forgiveness, and here I had to demur, because our definitions of forgiveness are rather different. Lerner seems to believe that forgiveness is the equivalent of absolution; I do not. I can forgive someone but still hold him or her to consequences. I do this on a regular basis as a parent: I forgive Samuel for the red Sharpie on the piano keys, but he is still going to lose Minecraft privileges! Forgiveness is a gift; it’s trust that must be earned.

Lerner also teaches that forgiveness must be earned. If the wrongdoer does not apologize and change, forgiveness is impossible. But that’s a prison I’m unwilling to call home. I must have a means to get free of the wrongdoer’s hold on my life, and forgiveness is the tool. Forgiveness means I no longer dwell in the wrong done to me.

Lerner takes serious issue with those who tell the victim that he or she has to forgive the wrongdoer, thereby adding pressure and shame to the victim. I concede her point there. While forgiveness is always needed eventually, there is no prescribed timeline or even method for getting there. I would never tell my friends who’ve been abused that “it’s time to forgive now”; that would be unconscionably insensitive. What I will do is pray and be a friend and be a listener, and encourage them in the acts of forgiveness when their hearts are strong enough to start on that path. No whitewashing allowed, only real healing.

Notable passages:

“With my husband, Steve, for example, I like to apologize for exactly my share of the problem – as I calculate it, of course – and I expect him to apologize for his share, also as I calculate it. Needless to say, we don’t always do the same math.” – p. 2

Ouch. Painfully true.

“The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them. An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction.” – p. 15

“The higher the anxiety in any system, the more individuals are held responsible for other people’s feelings and behavior (‘Apologize to your dad for giving him a headache’) rather than for their own (‘Apologize to your dad for not turning the music down when you knew he had a headache’).” – p. 19

“Words of apology, no matter how sincere, will not heal a broken connection if we haven’t listened well to the hurt party’s anger and pain.” – p. 51

“Say it shorter. If you’re trying to get through to a non-apologizer – or any difficult or defensive person – keep in mind that overtalking on your part will lead to underlistening from the other. This is true whether the offense you’re addressing is large or small.” – p. 76

“We want change but don’t want to change first – a great recipe for relationship failure.” – p. 109

“The best apologies are offered by people who understand that it is important to be oneself, but equally as important to choose the self we want to be.” – p. 125

Published in: on March 2, 2017 at 1:37 am  Leave a Comment