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Life Kit: How To Say Sorry

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the last few months, we've had apologies pouring forth from politicians, celebrities, even royalty. And, let's face it, they don't always hit the mark. For NPR's Life Kit, journalist Simran Sethi set out to learn how to offer an apology that is both heard and felt.

SIMRAN SETHI, BYLINE: I'm sorry, but...

HARRIET LERNER: No good.

SETHI: I'm sorry if...

LERNER: Bad.

SETHI: (Laughter) OK.

LERNER: I sound like a terrible school teacher.

SETHI: That's psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of "Why Won't You Apologize?" I talked to her to learn how to apologize in ways that feel genuine and are heartfelt.

LERNER: It takes courage to apologize. It's a vulnerable place to be, but it's so important.

SETHI: The reason it's so important is because none of us are perfect. Here's what makes it better.

LERNER: A good apology is when we take clear and direct responsibility without a hint of evasion, blaming, obfuscation, excuse-making and without bringing up the other person's crime sheet.

SETHI: That means staying focused on the issue at hand and getting rid of caveats.

LERNER: So tip No. 1 - get your but out of your apology. I'm so sorry that I forgot to call you, but I was flooded with work. The word but almost always signifies a rationalization, a criticism or an excuse. It doesn't matter if what you say after the but is true; the but makes your apology false.

SETHI: And here's her second suggestion. Prioritize the person who's hurting.

LERNER: If you think about it, it's not the two words, I'm sorry, that heals the injury. The hurt party wants to know that we really get it, that we validate their feelings, that we care about their feelings.

SETHI: This isn't easy, Lerner says, because we're wired for defensiveness. So here's what she challenges us to do.

LERNER: Set the intention that you will listen only for what you can understand. You will listen only 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: Even that small amount of 5% can make a world of difference.

LERNER: Well, the apology is not the end of a conversation. The apology is what lowers the intensity and creates an emotional climate in which a further conversation can occur.

SETHI: An apology done well becomes a start to deeper connection, not the end. For NPR News, I'm Simran Sethi.

MARTIN: For more NPR Life Kit, go to npr.org/lifekit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.