Apologizing Under Fire

How to Handle Big-Time Criticism

Magazine Issue
November/December 2016
A broken vase

It’s difficult enough to offer an apology when we see the need for it and believe it’s the right thing to do. It’s far more difficult still when we’re confronted with criticism we didn’t see coming, and that we don’t believe is fair. Some criticism we receive will undoubtedly come from the other person’s reactivity rather than our bad behavior.

No one likes being on the receiving end of criticism, but we can’t avoid it unless we sit mute in a corner. People are bound to criticize us for the same reasons we criticize them. They may feel badly about themselves, and reflexively get judgmental or lash out. They may have a misguided wish to be helpful and contribute to our betterment. Or we have a trait, quality, or behavior that bothers them enough that they really do need to talk about it or it will affect the relationship. They may feel, quite accurately, that the relationship can’t move forward if we don’t consider our behavior and apologize for it.

It’s incredibly difficult to sit on the hot seat and dial down our defensiveness when we are the target of criticism that feels overdone or entirely undeserved. But as the story of Katherine and Dee will illustrate, a lot can be learned from the challenge. We can learn to listen differently, to ask questions, to apologize for the part we can agree with and define how we see things differently. A genuine apology can be deeply healing, while the failure to listen well and apologize can sometimes lead to the loss of a relationship.

Unearthing Old Pain

It was Christmas Eve. Dee, who was 26 years old, had driven four hours to spend time with her mom, Katherine, who had divorced Dee’s dad when Dee was nine. They were cleaning up after the small party Katherine had thrown when out of the blue Dee turned to her mother and said those dreaded four words, “We have to talk.”

Dee’s timing wasn’t great and her list of grievances was devastating. She accused Katherine of neglecting her around the time of the divorce and noted that her own suffering had gone entirely unattended because, in Dee’s words, “You were too narcissistic to get over yourself and take care of me.” She held her mother responsible for her (Dee’s) problems with men and for her bleak prospects for future relationships. She also blamed her mother for her father’s drinking after the divorce. Dee mentioned that she had uncovered these insights in therapy, which Katherine happened to be paying for.

Katherine came to see me in therapy two months later. When she told me this story she was shaking with rage, and said that at the time of Dee’s confrontation, it took everything she had not to attack back. Trying to hold it together, Katherine had offered the closest thing to an apology that she could muster. She said, “I’m sorry, Dee, that you had such a hard time with the divorce. I never meant to hurt you. I did the best I could. So whatever I did wrong, I’m sorry.” Then she said good night and went to bed.

Given that Katherine was blindsided by the attack, it’s no surprise that she offered a classic non-apology. In case you didn’t recognize it as such, here’s a translation.

“I’m sorry, Dee, that you had such a hard time with the divorce.” (Your reaction to the divorce is the unfortunate problem here.)

“I never meant to hurt you.” (I’m a good person and I didn’t do anything wrong.)

“I did the best I could.” (And what more can you say to that!)

“So whatever I did wrong, I’m sorry.” (If I did something wrong, I’m clueless about what it is. But I’m sorry, so let’s move on.)

This analysis is by no means a criticism of how Katherine handled herself. It’s remarkable she didn’t strike back. Who among us would have done better under the circumstances? But Katherine told me that there had been zero communication between her and Dee since this devastating confrontation, and she had no plans to initiate contact. “I said I was sorry,” Katherine told me, “and now I’m waiting for Dee to apologize for her outrageous attack.”

But if Katherine was waiting for her daughter to apologize first, I suspected that she would be waiting a very long time. Katherine’s pseudo-apology (“I’m sorry you had such a hard time with the divorce”) and clichéd excuse (“I did the best I could”) certainly wouldn’t be satisfying to her daughter. Dee hadn’t apologized yet and might never do so.

I asked Katherine what she wanted her relationship with Dee to look like by next Christmas or, say, five years in the future. For how long could Katherine tolerate having no contact with her daughter—weeks, months, years? However she chose to respond to her daughter, whether through words or silence, would either deescalate the situation or intensify it. If Katherine had stayed focused on getting her daughter to apologize first, nothing might have changed at all.

It didn’t take too long in therapy before Katherine told me that she was afraid of losing her daughter. As she explored her options, she realized she was still too angry to pick up the phone, and she certainly didn’t feel like apologizing for her “bad mothering.” Nor did I encourage her to apologize, because any apology Katherine offered from a position of anger and distance would have been false and entirely without meaning. As Katherine’s therapist I wanted to help her to calm down and think about the bigger picture.

As Katherine talked in therapy about family interactions across generations, it was clear that mothers and daughters had not fared especially well. The pattern was one of fighting on the one hand, or distance and cutoff on the other. Did Katherine want to follow this tradition with Dee? Obviously both mother and daughter had a lot at stake.

Dee’s behavior was way out of line, perhaps the result of so many years of never giving voice to her anger and pain. But here is the real point when it comes to the challenge of apologies in family relationships. If our intention is to have a better relationship, we need to be our best and most mature self, rather than reacting to the other person’s reactivity. Also, some of the other person’s complaints will be true, since we can’t possibly get it right all of the time.

Only after we can hear our children’s criticism and anger, and are open to apologizing for the inevitable hurts and mistakes that every parent makes, can we expect to be truly heard by them. We need to be able to listen before we get our own message across—good advice for any relationship.

What next? Katherine was an attorney with a fine eye for detail and impressive verbal skills, so her impulse was to write a long letter building her case—a step in the wrong direction if her goal was to have a better relationship with Dee, or to have any relationship at all.

At my suggestion, she instead put a short, warm message in a greeting card, noting that she knew the visit was difficult for both of them, and that she was trying to consider the things Dee had told her as openly as possible. Dee didn’t respond to this card, or, more accurately, she responded with silence, which I encouraged Katherine not to take personally but rather view as information about Dee’s level of reactivity.

A few weeks later, at my suggestion, Katherine sent Dee a handwritten note (not email) that went something like this:

Dear Dee,

I’m sitting here on the red couch wondering how you’re doing. I’ve continued to think about your last visit. I’m sorry things got so intense between us. I assume from your silence that you need more space at this time.

I appreciate the courage it took for you to share your feelings so directly with me. I want to have the kind of relationship in which we can talk openly, something I never had with my own mother. I was never able to tell her when I was angry with her and I never stood up to her. Maybe that’s why I felt so unprepared to handle conflict between you and me.

My mother told me that she and her mother were always fighting and they stopped speaking to each other for years. So she and I reacted to that bit of history by doing the opposite and never letting a difference arise between us, which made for a pretty superficial relationship.

As I think about how things went between mothers and daughters, I realize how much I hope that you and I can have a different kind of relationship. I’ve also been thinking about the people in our family who aren’t speaking to each other. I can’t imagine anything more painful than that happening between you and me. So let’s try again when you’re ready, and I’ll do my best to listen.

Love, Mom

The letter that Katherine wrote her daughter illustrates seven family systems principles for creating a calm emotional field that will allow two people to talk together or even stay in the same room.

  • Katherine focused only on herself.
  • There was no implied criticism or blame.
  • She didn’t request or demand a particular response from Dee.
  • She broadened the frame around the issue of mothers and daughters.
  • She stood for connection without getting preachy.
  • She didn’t overload the circuits by going on too long.
  • She didn’t push for contact before Dee was ready.

Katherine wisely did not include an apology in this letter, because it would have been premature. What her daughter wanted more than anything was what we all want in our most important relationships. She wanted her mother to really get her experience and care about her feelings. She wanted her mother to listen. Understandably, listening to more of Dee’s criticism was the last thing Katherine wanted to do.

This time Dee responded to Katherine’s letter, albeit briefly, saying she was swamped with work and would get back in touch when she could. Dee’s response was an important sign that she wasn’t entrenched in a position of cutoff. Not long afterward they were back on speaking terms.

Then came the hardest part. It’s incredibly difficult to listen to someone’s pain when that someone is accusing us of causing it. We automatically listen for and react to what is unfair and incorrect. To listen with an open heart and ask questions to better help us understand the other person is a spiritual exercise, in the truest sense of the word.

Katherine rose to the challenge because the relationship was so important to her and because she knew that this was what Dee needed her to do. She decided in advance that she would try to listen differently—that all she would do was to listen as openly as possible and ask questions that would better allow her to understand her daughter’s feelings.

So at a calm time, she took the initiative to revisit the conversation. She asked Dee more about the ways the divorce affected her, both at the time it was happening and now in the present. She said, “At Christmas you said I ignored you around the time of the divorce. Can you tell me what you remember about that?”

It took tremendous effort to sit on the hot seat and only listen. When Dee again accused her mother of “selfish neglect,” Katherine could feel the defensiveness rise in her body—that immediate, “But, but, but . . .” response that makes us tense and on guard, unable to hear what the other person is saying. She automatically wanted to counter Dee’s story with her own view of the facts.

Dee was clueless about what her mother had been up against during the breakup of her marriage. Katherine had been depressed and without support after the divorce and physically exhausted by her efforts to stay afloat financially. To Katherine’s great credit, she didn’t hijack her daughter’s story with her own. Instead she slowed down her breathing and did what she could to calm herself so she could continue to listen, thus laying the groundwork for a sincere apology, and a more growth-fostering connection. She’d have a chance to tell her story later.

As Katherine listened to Dee’s experience, she was able to access some real empathy. She let Dee know, in a sincere way, how sorry she was that she hadn’t been more available to her during that painful time. She said she wished she could go back in time and do a better job of being there. She thanked her daughter for her honesty and expressed gratitude that Dee had the courage to bring up her real feelings.

More important than the words “I’m sorry” was Katherine’s dedication to keeping the lines of communication open over time. She let Dee know that their conversation wouldn’t slip out of her brain the next day, or ever. Katherine said, “It’s not easy to hear what you’re telling me, but I want you to know that what you’re telling me is very important to me and I’m going to keep thinking about it. I hope you’ll let me know as more comes up for you over time. I’ll try to do the same.”

The words I want you to know that I’m going to keep thinking about what you’ve told me are an often neglected and truly important part of a healing apology.

An authentic apology doesn’t mean that we passively accept criticisms that we believe are wrong, unjust, and totally off the mark. Katherine could let some of Dee’s angry remarks go—a sign of Katherine’s maturity and good judgment. At the same time, she needed to speak to a couple of her daughter’s accusations that continued to upset her.

One point of disagreement concerned Dee’s accusation that her mother was responsible for Dee’s problems with men, past, present, and future. Katherine agreed that she had made mistakes in the past that certainly may have contributed to Dee’s difficulties, but she did not agree that she was responsible for the decisions Dee made as an adult. So when the time felt right, she warmly explained to her daughter that she didn’t see herself as causing Dee’s poor choices with men, nor did she share Dee’s pessimism about her bleak romantic future. In a loving way Katherine said, “I have more confidence in you and more hope for your future relationships than you may feel right now.”

Katherine also told Dee that she took no responsibility for her dad’s drinking after the divorce. She said, “As you know, when people divorce, they usually have quite different perspectives on what happened. But whatever happened between your dad and me, I take responsibility only for my behavior, not for his. He was an adult and his drinking was his problem. I regret that he didn’t get the help he needed but I am not to blame for this.” A sincere apology means we are fully accountable for the part we are responsible for, and for only that.

Katherine said that she understood that these were points they saw differently, and she wanted to have the kind of relationship where they talk about the places where they disagreed. She expressed herself clearly, without trying to change Dee or convince her of “the truth.”

What started as a crisis and could have led to years of bitter silence became an opportunity for both Dee and Katherine to learn more about themselves and each other. The following Christmas, Dee surprised Katherine by apologizing for how severely she had confronted her mother the year before. It was an apology that Katherine never requested and that she needed increasingly less over time, but that was nonetheless deeply appreciated.

A Word about Being Blasted

A commitment to listening doesn’t mean that we stay mute while the other person is rude and out of bounds. It’s important to have limits especially about tolerating unkindness. For example, at the time of the original confrontation, Katherine might have said, “Dee, what you’re telling me is really important. But it’s Christmas Eve, I’m exhausted, and I can’t have this conversation now. Let’s talk tomorrow after breakfast when I can really pay attention.” Or, “Dee I love you, but I’m feeling flooded, and I can’t take in what you’re telling me all at once. I need to give myself a time-out. Let’s talk in the morning when we’re both rested.”

Being a good listener also means that we can tell the other person when we can’t listen—that we know when to say, “Not now” or “Not in this way.” When we tolerate rudeness in any relationship—if doing so becomes habitual rather than a rare event—we erode our own self-regard and diminish the other person by not reaching for their competence to do better. Plus, there is nothing compassionate about letting a person go on and on when the conversation is at our expense or we just can’t listen anymore.

I was taught in graduate school that listening is a passive process, but this isn’t true. Listening is an intensely active process, and one that comes far less naturally than talking. There’s no greater challenge than that of listening without defensiveness, especially when we don’t want to hear what the other person is telling us.

It’s impossible to overstate how difficult it is to shift out of defensive mode. When someone approaches us in an angry or critical way, our automatic set point is listening for what we don’t agree with. It’s so automatic that it takes motivation, courage, and goodwill to observe our defensiveness and practice stepping aside from it.

Nondefensive listening is at the heart of offering a sincere apology. Here are 12 points to keep in mind when we’re on the receiving end of criticism.

1. Recognize your defensiveness. We are wired to go immediately into defensive mode when criticized. Becoming aware of our defensiveness can give us a tiny, crucial bit of distance from it. We are listening defensively when we listen for what we don’t agree with. Catch yourself when you are focusing on the inaccuracies, distortions, and exaggerations that inevitably will be there.

2. Breathe. Defensiveness starts in the body, making us tense and on guard, unable to take in new information. Do what you can to calm yourself. Take slow and deep breaths.

3. Listen only to understand. Listen only to discover what you can agree with. Do not interrupt, argue, refute, or correct facts, or bring up your own criticisms and complaints. If your points are legitimate, that’s all the more reason to save them for a different conversation, when they can be a focus of conversation and not a defense strategy.

4. Ask questions about whatever you don’t understand. When the criticism is vague (“I feel you don’t respect me”), ask for a concrete example. (“Can you give me another example where you felt I was putting you down?”) This will add to your clarity and show the other party that you care about understanding her. Note: Asking for specifics is not the same thing as nitpicking—the key is to be curious, not to cross-examine. Don’t act like a lawyer, even if you are one.

5. Find something you can agree with. You may only agree with seven percent of what the other person is saying, and still find a point of commonality. (“I think you’re right that I was totally hogging the conversation the other night.”) If you can’t find anything to agree with, thank the other person for their openness, and let them know that you’ll be thinking about what they’ve told you.

6. Apologize for your part. It will indicate to the critical party that you’re capable of taking responsibility, not just evading it. It will also help shift the exchange out of combat into collaboration. Save your thoughts about their part until later.

7. Let the offended party know he or she has been heard and that you will continue to think about the conversation. Even if nothing has been resolved, tell the other person that she’s reached you. (“It’s not easy to hear what you’re telling me, but I want you to know that I’m going to give it a lot of thought.”) Take time to genuinely consider her point of view.

8. Thank the critical person for sharing his or her feelings. Relationships require that we take such initiative, and express gratitude where the other person might expect mere defensiveness. (“I appreciate your telling me this. I know it couldn’t have been easy.”) In this way we signal our commitment to the relationship.

9. Take the initiative to bring the conversation up again. Show the other person that you’re continuing to think about her point of view and that you’re willing to revisit the issue. (“I’ve been thinking about our conversation last week and I’m really glad that we had that talk. I’m wondering if there’s more you haven’t told me.”)

10. Draw the line at insults. There may be a time to sit through an initial blast, but not if rudeness has become a pattern in your relationship rather than an uncommon occurrence. Exit from rudeness while offering the possibility of another conversation. (“I want to hear what bothers you, but I need you to approach me with respect.”)

11. Don’t listen when you can’t listen well. It’s fine to tell the other person that you want to have the conversation and that you recognize its importance, but you can’t have it right now. If you’re closing the conversation, suggest a specific window of time to resume it. (“I can’t absorb what you’re saying now. Let’s come back to it tomorrow when I’ll be able to give you my full attention.”)

12. Define your differences. You need to tell the critical person how you see things differently, rather than being an overly accommodating, peace-at-any-price type of person who apologizes to avoid conflict. Even if the other person isn’t able to consider your point of view, you may need to hear the sound of your own voice saying what you really think. Timing is crucial, so consider saving your different point of view for a future conversation when you’ll have the best chance of being heard.

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. As we’ve seen, a good listener does more than sit there and make empathic grunts. Wholehearted listening requires us to quiet our mind, open our heart, and ask questions to help us to better understand. It also requires that we stop ourselves from interrupting, making corrections, and saying things that leave the other person feeling unheard or cut short. It requires us to get past our defensiveness when the critical party is saying things that we don’t agree with and don’t want to hear, and instead let her voice and her pain affect and influence us.

If only our passion to understand the other person were as great as our passion to be understood. Were this so, all of our apologies would be truly meaningful and healing.


Excerpted from the book Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts By Harriet Lerner PhD. Copyright © 2017 by Harriet Lerner PhD. Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

Photo © Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Harriet Lerner

Harriet Lerner is one of the most respected voices on the psychology of women and marriage and family relationships. For three decades, she was a staff psychologist and psychotherapist at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and a faculty member and supervisor in the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry. Currently in private practice in Lawrence, Kansas, she is the author of numerous scholarly articles and 11 books, including the New York Times best-seller, The Dance of Anger, Women in Therapy, The Dance of Connection, and The Dance of Fear. Lerner has been a guest on Oprah, CNN, NPR and numerous other media. She is also, with her sister, an award-winning children’s book author, and she hosts a blog for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. Lerner’s new book is Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and The Coupled Up.