Today Brene Brown and Harriet Lerner started back into this discussion on apologies with the quote, shown above.

Everyone is talking and no one is listening. It is all around us. It is almost a part of our very culture.

So, today, in my post, I want to start off by addressing the person who has done the hurt in talking about LISTENING. And then end by addressing the person who has felt the hurt in talking about WHAT HAPPENS IF THEY DON’T APOLOGIZE.

LISTENING: A message to the person who did the hurt.

“It’s easy to listen if we like what the other person is saying. It’s very difficult to listen if we don’t like what they are saying. We get defensive.”

As soon as we can tell that what the person approaching us is about to say is going to be something that we don’t want to hear, we automatically become defensive. We are hard-wired to become defensive. It is one of the things our monkey brain does really really well – it thinks it’s protecting us. Get this: When we are defensive, we listen for what we don’t agree with. We listen for the exaggerations, we listen for the inaccuracies. You can catch yourself getting defensive, whether or not you feel it in your body yet, by noticing when you are looking for the things your don’t agree with.

An example. When my daughter says, “You always tell me that my clothes don’t look good.” Right away, my brain is saying, Whoa! I don’t ALWAYS tell you that your clothes don’t look good. And that is not even what I am saying right now. You’re wrong about what I said.

I can see, right away, and I can inform myself, right away, that I am feeling defensive. And just knowing that can give me some leverage over it. I don’t want to enter this conversation on the defensive.

Rather than listening for the inaccuracies, I want to listen for the “essence of what she is saying”. I think the essence of her words is this: “I really value your opinion of the way I look, Mom, and when you tell me that my clothes don’t match, it hurts me.”

And when I listen for the essence of what she is saying, I see so much more clearly where the hurt was done. Do you see that? When I take defensiveness out me, before I even say anything at all, I can already see more clearly where I have hurt her, or where I have done wrong.

“No apology has meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain.”

Elements of non-defensive listening:

  • Recognize your defensiveness.
  • Breathe. You cannot listen if you are worked up. Breathe.
  • Listen only to understand. Listen only for what you can agree on.
  • Ask questions about whatever you don’t understand.
    • Not nit-picking, but ask questions out of honest curiosity. Help me understand.
    • CURIOSITY CHANGES EVERYTHING! Brene tells the story of a time she came to her mom, because she was so hurt over the way her mom had been absent as a mother in a difficult time. And her mom listened, and her mom asked questions. And her mom even asked to take notes, so she could really think about Brene’s pain. And Brene felt seen and not judged. Her mom’s curiosity and humility changed everything – probably for both women, right? There is power in curiosity. There is opportunity in curiosity.
  • Focus on what you can agree on, no matter how small.
  • Let the other person know that they are heard, and that you will continue to think about it.
  • Thank the hurt person for having the courage to share their feelings.
  • Define your differences.
    • And timing on this is key. But keep the conversation going. This is boundary setting – define differences and allow differences.
    • You and I see that point a little differently.

And when there isn’t going to be an apology, can we accept it and be okay with it?


First, we have a part, right? What can we do – what is in our control?

  1. When we are ready, and feel it is appropriate to approach the person who has hurt us, remember that there is power in being short – don’t over-talk things. If you want to be heard, understand that people will take in very little information if it isn’t what they want to hear. Edit. Say it short-er.
  2. Move from blaming to “assertive claiming”. You are defining yourself: This is what I think, this is what I feel. Respect that they may feel differently. Be mature. Use integrity.
  3. Focus on how you feel and not on the other person’s crime sheet. Keep it focused on your feelings.
  4. Don’t ask for an apology. It will make them feel like a child. And the apology won’t really be honest, if you’ve demanded it of them.

I want to use the example Harriet uses of a man, John, who emailed his employer after a hurtful confrontation, to illustrate these four points:

Dear _______. It was difficult to tell you why I needed three weeks away from work. But I’ve come to see you not only as a leader, but as an important mentor in my life. I came to you with the truth about my addiction struggles because you have consistently talked to us about the need for trust and truth in our team. When you framed my struggle as weakness of character and asked me to ‘suck it up’, I left your office feeling like I’ve disappointed you and lost respect in your eyes. My hope is that you will support my decision to get help. I believe it is the bravest and most respectful thing I can do for myself, my family, and this team.

  1. The message was short. But clear. It only talked about what was happening at present.
  2. John didn’t blame his employer for being insensitive or short-sighted. But he was true to himself, and his feelings.
  3. That leads us to number three. John focused on his feelings, not his employers wrong actions.
  4. And, of course, he didn’t ask for an apology. Nor did John offer an apology for respecting himself.

“The healing of writing this or saying this, should not come in the response… If you need a specific response, then you are not ready to open up…

Write it or say it because you need to hear the sound of your own voice speaking your truth.”

Another reason to not approach the person who hurt you is if you’re trying to make them feel the same way they made you feel? From Brene Brown:

“Answering shame with shame, and blame with blame. There is no end to that cycle.”

Said beautifully by Dr Martin Luther King Jr:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We can meet hurt with compassion. I cannot control the other person’s reaction. I can honor myself, and I can own my part, and act in integrity. And I can have compassion.

Understand this:

“In order to apologize, a person needs a big platform of self-worth to stand on. And when they are standing on that higher platform, they can look at their mistakes and see those mistakes as part of being human…

The ones who do the greatest harm to us are the least able to apologize because they stand on a small rickety platform of self-worth, and they’re not able to see the bad things they’ve done as just a part of the complexity of being human. They collapse into shame.”

We can apologize for what we do, but we can’t apologize for what we are. So, if they are under the impression that what they do bad means that they are bad – if they can’t separate those two things – then, of course, you and I are not going to get an apology from them.

Can I see the difference between I made a mistake, and I am a mistake? If I can’t, then I can’t truly truly apologize.

“The willingness to apologize and make amends is such a function of self-worth. The higher the self-worth, the higher the self-respect, the greater the willingness to apologize and make amends.”

Brene and Harriet end with a parable. And I want to end today’s post with them same parable. It is beautiful:

“According to an ancient parable, a king and quarrels with his son, and in a fit or rage, exiles his son from the kingdom. After a number of years, the king’s heart softens, and he sends his ministers our to find his son, and ask him to come home. But the young man resists the invitation. He feels too bitter, too hurt to return. When the ministers present the sad news to the king, he sends them out again with a new message for his son: Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to reach you.”

What does that mean to you?


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