Harriet Lerner: The Nine Ingredients of a Good Apology

Cindy JobsUncategorized

“If only our passion to understand others were as great as our passion to be understood.  Were this so, all our apologies would be truly meaningful and healing.”

— Harriet Lerner

Most of us have been spending a great deal of time together. We are communicating differently than we have in the past. Our words and actions can be interpreted differently via phone and video. Miscommunication, misunderstandings, and misguided intentions may be a fallout of the social distancing we are experiencing.

Sometimes others are at fault; sometimes, we are. If you find yourself needing to make amends, look for the gifts in a genuine, heartfelt apology.

Gift #1: The person being apologized to feels heard, validated, respected, and safe in the relationship. It also allows them to release any hurt and resentment they may be carrying.

Gift #2: The apologizer will grow in self-worth, resilience, and happiness once they can acknowledge that they are not perfect and can see themselves objectively. Also, both parties may gain respect for themselves and the other person.

Gift #3:  The relationship will be strengthened. Relationships may only be as strong as our ability to repair hurt.

Now that you know how heartfelt apologies can be a gift, here are Dr. Wheeler’s nine ingredients to a sincere apology.

1. It does not include the word “but.” 

“I’m sorry I broke that vase.” Yes!

“I’m sorry I broke that vase, but you left it too close to the stairs.”  No!

2. It keeps the focus on your actions—and not on the other person’s response. 

“I’m sorry I said something offensive. That was wrong of me.” Yes!

“I’m sorry I said something offensive, but you probably need to grow a bit thicker skin.”  No!

3. It includes an offer of reparation or restitution that fits the situation.

“I’m sorry I spilled wine all over your beautiful tablecloth. I’d like to replace it, pay to have it laundered, or pay you to purchase a new one.” Yes!

4. It does not overdo. 

“I’m sorry I was late for our date.” Yes!

“I’m sorry I was late for our date. Let me make it up to you. I promise to send flowers every week, and I’ll buy dinner for the next six months.” No!

5. It doesn’t get caught up in who’s more to blame or who started it. 

“I’m sorry I overreacted about hosting the family dinner.” Yes!

“I’m sorry I overreacted about hosting the family dinner, but you keep pushing my buttons about my relationship with my family, and I’d just had enough.” No!

6. A true apology needs to be backed by corrective action.

“I’m sorry I took the money without asking. I will repay it by the end of the week.” Yes! 

And then pay it back. No questions, no extensions.

7. It requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance. 

“I’m sorry I keep showing up late for our meetings. I’ll be more conscientious about it in the future.” Yes! 

And then show up on time.

8. Should not serve to silence others.

“I’ve apologized like ten times for not calling when I was going to be late. Let it go already.” No!

9. It does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive. 

“I said I was sorry for committing us to host family dinner, but now I need you to forgive me, let it go, and move on.” No!

Apologies are sometimes challenging. We may feel like apologizing means we lose power and appear weak. A good apology may make us feel vulnerable. Apologies may make us recognize we are fallible. 

But apologies can make us stronger, and more resilient. We may gain, and not lose, the respect of others and ourselves.

If you have something you need to apologize for, how will you do it differently now than you may have before reading this?

Make yourself and others feel heard, validated, and safe, go apologize.

Want more?

Check out the Dr. Lerner’s Psychology Today article or listen to the Brene’ Brown podcast with Dr. Lerner.


Cindy Jobs, PCAC


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