Michelle Seaton Interviews Molly Howes on A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right
GrubStreet Instructor Michelle Seaton interviewed Memoir Incubator alum Molly Howes about her new book A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right. This paradigm-shifting book describes how apologies work, why they are so hard, and why they are so essential for rebuilding and maintaining relationships. You can learn more about and purchase the book here.
Michelle Seaton: How did the idea for this book come to you? Why did the subject of making apologies seem so compelling?
Molly Howes: I think the basic issue is that there’s a lot of hurt in the world that I think could be healed. And we don’t know how. So, that moves me. Related to that is, I have a thing about waste. I kind of save things that might be useful later. It annoys the heck out of my husband. When I was first in therapy I saw a lot of waste in relationships that people were losing and I thought that there must be a way for these relationships to be saved. So, the possibility of repairing breaches and harms and mending them appeals to my sense of wholeness and not wasting things.
MS: You note early on that many of the hundreds of patients you’ve worked with struggle to apologize well. And so do many people who aren’t in therapy. Why is that?
MH: I think there are a few reasons. One is that we live in a culture that values certainty and confidence and independence, and a model of adulthood and maturity that doesn’t include self-doubt and doesn’t include receptivity to other people. That’s not the whole culture, but that’s a dominant idea about success, that is supposed to look like that. In fact, it doesn’t for many successful people and many mature adults. But there’s a model that most of us are affected by. And relationship repair doesn’t fit in that model. We are told that “it is what it is” or to “get over it” or “let it go.”
Another thing is that our brains are wired to be efficient. Neuroscience tells us that it’s inefficient for our brains to go back and do things again. So, we make amazing amounts of mistakes and don’t see them. We think we are correct when we’re not. We’re bad at seeing our own mistakes. It’s not our fault. We have blind spots when it comes to our mistakes and our behavior. We think, especially if we’ve been hurt, that we know the whole story. But we never do, unless we ask the other person. We know our side, but it isn’t the whole story. And that is a blind spot that most of us are not in the habit of taking into account. When you’re driving, you have to pay attention to your blind spot, but not in life.
And the third thing is that we don’t know how. We are not taught. We don’t have models for how to do that well. It’s an undervalued skill.
MS: One of the pleasures of the book is reading the stories of your patients and how they struggle to understand that they’ve caused harm in a relationship and how a good apology with some coaching can transform even deeply strained relationships. Is that part of the goal of the book to model that whole process?
MH: Yes. I think so. It’s to offer a hopeful sense of possibility. When things go wrong, it’s not the end of the story, or it doesn’t have to be. You might be able to repair things and heal hurt and mend relationships. Even when it doesn’t seem possible. You might think “Oh, I screwed up. That’s it.” Or “They screwed up. I’m never going to forgive them.” But over time and with the right effort many things can be repaired.
MS: All of these examples also show that we are capable of causing real harm in our relationships at any moment. And you make the point that people think they don’t need to apologize if they didn’t mean to cause harm.
MH: Yes. It’s a very common misconception that if you apologize then you are accepting blame. And that’s not always the case, although sometimes it is. You can feel terrible about something you did that hurt somebody that you did not in any way intend to hurt them. And maybe you couldn’t have known it would hurt them. You still care. It’s more about responsibility for the relationship than it is blame for the behavior or the cause of the hurt. If you care more about the relationship than you care about protecting your self-concept as someone who doesn’t cause harm.
MS: The book also points out that it’s not the unintentional slight or insult that harms relationships, but the failure to address it. How did you come to realize that?
MH: When I first started thinking of this book, I thought it’s not enough to be a book because it’s just my accumulated wisdom. I’m not an academic doing research on apologies. But I’ve seen this enough times in couple’s counseling and individual therapy. I’ve seen it in my own life, too. Because we accidentally hurt each other a lot. And if we’re paying attention we find out that we’re accidentally hurting each other a lot. Or if we’re lucky and our loved ones tell us and we have the chance to heal and to avoid it next time, then things are better. It’s inherently rewarding to realize the mistake and/or realize the hurt and heal the hurt. Everybody feels better. You feel closer to each other.
MS: Reading the book stirred a lot of emotions in me, first about all of the harms I’ve suffered for which no one has apologized or ever will, but then a kind of dawning realization that I have certainly done harm all over the place myself. Is that part of the intent of the book?
MH: I think it is, yes. And it’s a kind of universal response so far among the people I’ve talked to and I’m glad about that because it makes us wonder and be curious about things we might be able to make better. And it’s also sad looking at the things we can’t make better, which already were sad before we started thinking about them. Even with those sad things that can’t ever get resolved, let’s say, because the person you need to apologize to is gone, there are some steps you can take, some ritualized things you can do. There are steps that are useful.
MS: You lay out four steps for a good apology. Listening to the hurt that you’ve caused. Apologizing with sincerity. Making amends if necessary, and building a system in which you don’t cause more harm. Which step is the most difficult?
MH: The first one. That’s the decision to listen. To issue that invitation requires such courage to put yourself on the line. Many people find that once they decide to do it. It isn’t as hard as it seems. It doesn’t kill you to say, “Yeah, I see that I did something to hurt you.” And, “I’m sorry.” But before you get to that step, you think, “Oh, well, I don’t think that was my fault.”
MS: And it’s hard to listen without interrupting with, “but, but, but.” But that’s not what I meant. But that’s not how it happened. But that happened so long ago.
MH: Yeah. But that wasn’t such a big deal. But what about all the good things I do?
MS: One of the things the book does is it shows apologies that are done publicly and internationally. One was Justin Trudeau’s apology in 2018 to the LGBTQ2 community for decades of harassment and discriminatory laws that caused enormous harm to Canadian citizens.
MH: Yes, and he did that with great sincerity and emotion. Several of the people interviewed afterward who had been harmed by those laws were moved. One of them said, “This is the beginning of healing.”
Trudeau also apologized to First Nations peoples and to descendants of the passengers from the MS St. Louis, which was the ship carrying refugees escaping the Nazis in 1939 and were turned away. And one of the passengers was still alive and she was present when he made the apology, and met with him afterward.
To have your pain spoken aloud and honored. It’s a very powerful beginning. It’s not the whole healing, but it’s a powerful beginning. And then there’s the potential for restitution and real change. It’s enormous on every level. This model is a little bit more challenging in that it’s not what we think of when we think of an apology. We think of it as just saying, “I’m sorry.” And I’m talking about a larger, fuller process of making amends. It includes all of that.
MS: It includes listening, followed by a statement of apology that has to be sincere. And you back it up with reparations if necessary and you build a system in which it doesn’t happen again. It’s a lot.
MH: It is a lot. And yet it’s not all that fancy, if you’re in a particular situation like the one in the book where a man caused his partner to miss an important part of a family event that mattered to him. And once he figured it out, he offered a do-over. And kindly. He figured out how to make that work. It didn’t take a long time to figure it out. And they also figured out ways to keep him from making his partner late in other situations. So, in real life those things are pretty feasible. On the larger scale, they are in some ways even clearer.
For the LGBTQ2 community, they made all kinds of repairs, changing laws, expunging criminal records, an attempt to heal actual harms.
And so the big issue in our country is facing the racial inequities that have been perpetuated over the centuries. And although it’s an enormous scale and very complicated, I think this model is comprehensive enough that if we were all on board with this, this is the kind of steps that white people can take if they want to be good allies and to work toward antiracism.
MS: The book discusses the need to make reparations and repairs for harms done decades or even centuries ago. It addresses the ongoing conversations about reparations for slavery. And how that its potentially transformative for everyone.
MH: Yes. There is both the hurt to be healed but also the aggrieved people to be satisfied. This is about justice. And it’s massive. But people who are overwhelmed and say what can I do, what can I do, because it’s too big. I think there are entry points. And I think it’s helpful to have a framework for where you might contribute, which could be on different planes, on different scales, on different steps on this model.
MS: You talk about why it’s necessary to engage in that conversation in an ongoing way.
MH: I certainly think so. It has to be in an ongoing way, if it’s going to be done thoroughly, because it’s going to take a long time. So, we better get started. I’m working on a piece right now and how this model can be applied to race. My feeling is that I don’t have enough time left in my life so I have to spend as much time as I can to work on this. Because I think it’s the most important overdue apology of our time, of our country.
Michelle Seaton’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, The Pushcart Anthology among others. Her journalism and essays have appeared in Robb Report, Bostonia, Yankee Magazine, The Pinch andLake Effect. Her essay, “How to Work a Locker Room” appeared in the 2009 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the coauthor of the books The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009) and Living with Cancer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (HarperWave, 2018). She has been an instructor with Grub Street since 2000 and is the lead instructor and created the curriculum for Grub Street's Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced five anthologies.See other articles by Michelle Seaton