How To Apologize For Sexual Harassment (Hint: It Takes More Than 'Sorry') Psychologist Harriet Lerner says apologies shouldn't ask for forgiveness, and they don't even have to say sorry. It's more important to give an "an emotionally packed corroboration" of what happened.
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How To Apologize For Sexual Harassment (Hint: It Takes More Than 'Sorry')

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How To Apologize For Sexual Harassment (Hint: It Takes More Than 'Sorry')

How To Apologize For Sexual Harassment (Hint: It Takes More Than 'Sorry')

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ELISE HU, HOST:

There is now a long list of prominent men who face sexual misconduct claims and, with that, a long list of apologies. One of the latest came from the animation chief of Pixar and Disney. John Lasseter's apology referenced unwanted hugs and other gestures that he admitted may have crossed a line. NPR's Neda Ulaby talked to an expert in the art of apologies about what makes a good one.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Harriet Lerner is a psychologist who wrote a book this year called "Why Won't You Apologize?" - very prescient. There's a reason she says why apologizing is so hard.

HARRIET LERNER: Humans are wired for defensiveness.

ULABY: That's why it's difficult for people to take clear, direct responsibility for specific things without blaming other people or making excuses, Lerner says. And when it comes to public apologies for sexual harassment...

LERNER: It's a performance. It's an act of self-protection, an attempt to do damage control to save one's reputation.

ULABY: But a good apology, she says, should make it clear the wrongdoer will carry some of the pain. For example, something like, I will be struggling perhaps forever because of the harm I've caused women who trusted me.

LERNER: And the other thing is that a good apology would not ask you as the harmed party to do anything - certainly not to forgive.

ULABY: That's what the former editor of the New Republic did in a statement, asking forgiveness from female colleagues for what he termed his offenses. But in a good apology, Lerner says, nothing should be asked of the harmed party, nor does an apology mean the offender has earned anyone's forgiveness. Then there's this common rhetorical dodge that popped up in Dustin Hoffman's statement to a woman who claimed he'd harassed her when she was a teenager. Lerner quotes the actor saying...

LERNER: "I have the utmost respect for women, and I feel terrible for anything I might have done."

ULABY: Words like might and if and but cancel out real sincerity, Lerner says. The head of Pixar, John Lasseter, weakened his apology by saying, quote, "I deeply apologize if I have let you down."

LERNER: These kind of obfuscating, gaslighting apologies really are good lessons about how not to apologize.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VIEW")

LEEANN TWEEDEN: It says (reading) dear Leeann, I want to apologize to you personally.

ULABY: Last Friday on the ABC show "The View," Leeann Tweeden read a good apology aloud. Senator Al Franken had harassed her by taking a demeaning photo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VIEW")

TWEEDEN: (Reading) I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, but that doesn't matter. There's no excuse, and I understand why you could feel violated by that photo.

ULABY: In his apology, Franken validated Tweeden's experience and her feelings. He said he was ashamed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VIEW")

TWEEDEN: (Reading) I am so sorry. Sincerely, Al Franken.

JOY BEHAR: Good letter.

TWEEDEN: Yeah, it's great.

ULABY: The words I'm sorry we're not part of Louis C.K.'s apology to the fellow female comedians he'd harassed. That irked many critics but not psychologist Harriet Lerner.

LERNER: It's not the words I'm sorry that heal or soothe the harmed party.

ULABY: It's validating their experience.

LERNER: What the harmed party wants and needs to hear is an emotionally packed corroboration of the reality that occurred. Yes, I get it. It was terrible. It was unconscionable. Your feelings make sense.

ULABY: Good apologies are important, Lerner says, but they're not enough. Apologies do not excuse perpetrators from the consequences of their actions, and they do not compensate for a culture where women have less power and less privilege and too many men have things to be sorry for. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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