Clinical psychologist MOLLY HOWES explains why the first step to an apology is to not say a word.
AFTER A MISSTEP, the first, automatic thing some of us do is say “I’m sorry.” We hope that’s the end of it. Spoken aloud these words can be delivered as if fulfilling a requirement—reluctant and resented code words that signal the end of a standoff or of a power struggle. But even when “I’m sorry” is a sincere attempt to repair a relationship, it isn’t enough. One obvious drawback to saying those words before fully understanding the actual injury is that you might not apologize for the correct thing. Listening is essentially receptive—and many of us find it more comfortable to take action than to remain patient and silent.
Asking for another person’s perspective on your impact can make you feel vulnerable. When you ask someone to tell you about their hurt, you put yourself in a position to hear things you hadn’t been aware of, and no one enjoys that kind of news. Moreover, the feedback you receive may make you feel guilty or ashamed. Just thinking about this step can make you feel defensive and uncomfortable, but reluctance to engage in it can become a major barrier to apologizing well.
Further, when you ask for this kind of information, you are also likely to open yourself up to feeling for the other person, empathically. So much feeling and complexity may seem unappealing, unwelcome. The temptation to skip this step is understandable. However, it is the base on which everything else is built.
The task is to put our defensive reluctance aside in order to reconnect.
A common misconception is that thinking about another person and trying to take her or his point of view will produce understanding. This strategy is fine for some purposes (increasing altruism, decreasing stereotyping), but even if you are remarkably intuitive, your guessing has big limitations. Accurately comprehending another person’s point of view takes more than imagination. It requires getting real information that can be obtained only by asking that person.
In a 2018 report based on 25 studies of almost 3,000 people, researchers found that individuals who attempted to take someone else’s perspective became more likely to misread a situation or misunderstand someone, although they sometimes had increased confidence in their “knowledge.” Experimenters asked people to identify the thoughts, feelings, and preferences of other people, ranging from complete strangers to spouses. Whether they guessed the emotions of other people from photographs or videos, or predicted which activities their partners would like or which opinions they would endorse, those who were encouraged specifically to first try to take the other person’s point of view were less accurate than people who just guessed.
The researchers concluded that, even with people you know well, imagining someone else’s experience doesn’t help you get it right. In order to identify another’s viewpoint, you have to ask them. The authors called it “perspective-getting,” which you accomplish by inquiring, over “perspective-taking” on your own.
The goal here is greater common understanding and empathy. As the author and essayist Leslie Jamison writes, “Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.” With a familiar person, asking can help you learn about their perspective on relationship events you might not have noticed. Such knowledge may help you grow closer and, together, find ways to challenge long-standing patterns.
HEAR THE HURT
A public process that stands out as a beacon across the world occurred in South Africa following the fall of Apartheid. After many years of the racist and discriminatory system of violent oppression, the new government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which gave those who had been mistreated the chance to tell—and hear—their stories of harm. The power of having your painful truth heard and known cannot be overstated.
The goal was not to punish the perpetrators—who in fact were offered amnesty in exchange for full disclosure—but to acknowledge publicly the harm inflicted and experienced, to provide information to survivors, and potentially to be able to coexist.
Despite the lack of contrition on the part of some perpetrators, more than 21,000 victims came forward and, for the record, presented their experiences of serious harm.
According to legal scholar and human rights expert Martha Minow, official recognition of individuals’ stories helped to “create a framework for the nation to deal with its past [based on the idea that] telling and hearing the truth is healing.” An essential element of this testimony appears to be that those testifying were treated “as persons to be believed, rather than troublemakers or even people with a burden to prove their story.” The analogous stance for interpersonal apologies is the assumption that the other person’s hurt is real and their report is legitimate. Even the discovery, during the trials, of the terrible details of a loved one’s demise allowed for the progression of grief and, potentially, healing.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?
Many hurts, especially old ones, take more than one brief conversation to express and understand. How long it takes isn’t universal or predictable, which can be frustrating to the apologizer who wants to move on.
But you have to have the whole conversation. If you remember that this process is not about the endgame of absolution, you will understand that it takes time, attention, and patience to not only restore a relationship, but also to make it stronger than it was.
Adrienne Maree Brown, a social justice activist who writes about how to make conflict transformational rather than destructive, recommends we take more time to address hurt or conflict, much more time than our reactive customs usually allow. “Real time is slower than social media time, where everything feels urgent. Real time often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility.”
After major injuries, such as betrayals or unfaithfulness, hearing the whole experience of the hurt person can take a relatively long time. Some parts of the story must be heard more than once. Emotions have their own idiosyncratic arcs, which have to be honored. In his poem “Crying,” Galway Kinnell advises the reader to cry and cry until all the tears are cried. He writes, “Happiness [hides] in the last tear.” Change and relief won’t come until the hurt person is ready to move on.
IDEAS FOR GETTING STARTED
“I thought I knew what happened, but
apparently I’m missing something.
Would you fill me in, please?”
“I said I was sorry for what I did, but it
seems like there’s something else I
“I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s
going on, but I think there might be
more I should know about how what I
did affected you.”
“Obviously I touched a raw nerve, and I
want to know more about it so I don’t do
“Look, something I did hit you in a really
bad way and I truly want to understand
“I want to understand what’s going on.
Please tell me all about it.”
“I want to understand. I’ll do my best
just to listen.”
“Thank you for bringing up how I
affected you. I want to hear about it.”
Adapted excerpt from the book A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right by Molly Howes, PhD. © 2020 by Mary J. Howes, PhD. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.