The art of the apology

Kathryn Crawford Saxer A Little Kindness, Career Management

“I owe you an apology,” I told my coaching client.

I’ve been apologizing a lot lately. Not because I’ve screwed up more than usual, but because I read a book that taught me how to apologize better.

Dr. Harriet Lerner’s 2017 “Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts is one of those handy guidebooks to life that teaches you how to do things that you’re supposed to know how to do, but don’t. Not really.

“The courage to apologize, and the wisdom and clarity to do so wisely and well, is at the heart of effective leadership, coupledom, parenting, friendship, personal integrity, and what we call love,” writes Lerner, a Ph.D. psychologist with decades of clinical experience.

I screwed up with this coaching client. I had promised to write her an email but never did. I thought about it, meant to, put it off, didn’t get around to it, got distracted.

I had promised to do something and didn’t follow through.


My preferred MO is to gloss over a mistake, laugh it off or slide by it. Which is easier, but lacks a certain element of courage.

“Our self-respect and level of maturity rest squarely on our ability to see ourselves objectively, to take a clear-eyed look at the ways that our behavior affects others, and to acknowledge that we’ve acted at another person’s expense,” Lerner writes.

Here are the four steps of a simple apology, using my apology to my client as an example.

Step 1: Say sorry. “I owe you an apology,” I told my client. Yikes, now I’m committed.

Step 2: Say what you’re sorry for. “I said I’d write you that email, but I never did,” I explained. “I’m sorry.”

Step 3: Resist the temptation to say “but.” Anything after the word “but” is going to be all bad.

“When ‘but’ is tagged on to an apology, it undoes the sincerity,” Lerner writes. “Watch out for this sneaky little add-on. It almost always signals an excuse or cancels out the original message.”

Much as I wanted to justify my bad behavior (“ … but I’ve been really distracted by the World Cup,” for example, or “… but I got caught up in the end-of-school-year chaos”), I managed not to tag on a “but” and negate my apology.

Step 4: Take responsibility for your behavior (don’t say “if”!). “It’s not OK to say I’m going to do something and then not do it,” I told my client. “I won’t do that again.”

In this apology to my client, I took responsibility for my (in) action, and promised not to do it again.

There. Done.

And, importantly, I didn’t say “if.”

There is an entire Wikipedia entry on the non-apology apology, also known as a faux apology or (my favorite) nonpology, which includes or implies the pesky word “if.” The all-star non-apology, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” redirects to this Wikipedia entry.

“Almost any apology that begins with ‘I’m sorry if …’ is a non-apology,” Lerner writes. That’s because the words become about the other person’s reaction, rather than about the apologizer’s behavior.

In my apology to my client, this would have sounded something like, “I’m sorry if you were disappointed that I didn’t write that email.” I might have felt like I’d apologized (before I read Lerner’s book), but really I would have been focusing on my client’s disappointment rather than taking responsibility for my own behavior.

“Many of us dismiss apologies that the other person has gathered the courage to make,” Lerner writes. “We want to end an uncomfortable moment as quickly as possible, even if this means telling the person who is apologizing that it’s nothing, no big deal.”

If the other person has pushed through his or her discomfort to do the right thing and apologize, Lerner writes, we can push through our discomfort and say, “Thanks for the apology.”

Interestingly, my client didn’t let me off the hook. She didn’t say, “Oh, no problem, don’t worry about it.” Instead, she said, “Thanks. I was really interested in how you’d frame that email. It would have been helpful.”


We talked about my apology later. She said, “Your apology was a simple acknowledgment that told me that despite a small slip-up, this relationship matters to you, too.”

One apology down. About a million more to go.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.