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Authors explain how and why to apologize the right way

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is January - new year, fresh start. And what better way to start anew than by wiping the slate clean and apologizing for all those lousy things we may have done last year? Well, in their new book, "Sorry, Sorry, Sorry," Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy make the case that a good apology feels great to the person giving it, to the person receiving it, even to other people who may witness it.

Well, Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy join me now. Welcome to you both.

MARJORIE INGALL: Thanks for having us.

SUSAN MCCARTHY: Thank you.

KELLY: Susan, I'm going to let you kick us off, and I want you to tell us a story I loved. This is in the very first chapter. It's about someone named Chad Michael Morrisette who, to sum up, he was bullied as a kid. And then 20 years later, out of the blue, he gets a message on Facebook. Tell us what happened.

MCCARTHY: As you said, it was just out of the blue. He got a message from somebody saying, I don't know if you remember me. I was talking to my 10-year-old daughter about bullying. She asked me if I ever bullied anyone, and sadly, I had to say yes. And he had thought about this for years, he said, but he remembered that he had been a vicious bully to Chad Michael Morrisette in junior high school. Apparently, this was really bad. He had to be escorted from class to class. The entire football team bullied him. They threatened him.

And Chad Michael Morrisette was stunned to get this apology. He thought about it for a couple of days, and he wrote that he was quite moved. He said, thank you; I accept your apology. In 20 years, you were the only person to apologize for being a bully to me when we were younger. And then the guy who had written to him was also really moved, and he said, thank you. Your forgiveness means more than you know, and I hope I'm not the last one to ask for it.

KELLY: Well, let's get to the how. Y'all offer six - 6 1/2 simple steps to a beautiful apology. Let me let you read them.

INGALL: We believe that a good apology has six parts, maybe 6 1/2. Here they are. No. 1 is say you're sorry, not that you regret, not that you are devastated - say you're sorry.

MCCARTHY: The second part is to say what it is that you're apologizing for. Be specific. And this is important. This gets bungled a lot. People are embarrassed. They want to get it over with. They don't want to say what they did. They say, oh, that was quite a situation. No, you got to say what it is.

INGALL: And No. 3 is you've got to show you understand why it was bad, which is really difficult. You have to take ownership of the thing and show that you understand why you caused hurt.

MCCARTHY: And No. 4 is not to make excuses. Excuses can even turn into attacks. So you don't say, you know, I was having a really bad day and work was horrible and the drive home was - work was horrible. And then, you know, you asked me if I'd seen your shoes, and I'm not your shoe concierge, so of course I went off on you.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MCCARTHY: That's an excuse. That's not (laughter) a good apology.

INGALL: Right. No. 5 is say why it won't happen again. What steps are you taking?

MCCARTHY: And No. 6, if it's relevant, is to make reparation. Say, you know, I'm going to pay for the dry cleaning. Just send the bill to me. I'm going to do my best to fix what I did.

INGALL: And these six steps are relevant for adults, for children, for corporations, for institutions, for governments. And 6 1/2 is listen. People want to be heard, and don't jump over them. Let the person that you hurt have their say.

KELLY: Which is sometimes the hardest one - you can say all the right things, and then if you keep talking and...

INGALL: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Don't get the reaction from the other people, it's incomplete.

MCCARTHY: Uh-huh.

INGALL: Correct.

KELLY: Ah - all right. So that's the to-do list. It sounds so easy. It sounds so straightforward. I love that the very first one is say you're sorry, which would seem like super obvious advice for an apology...

INGALL: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...But so often doesn't happen.

INGALL: Right. People like to say that they're regretful. And regret is about how I feel. I'm regretful. But you know what? We're all regretful. Sorry is about how the other person feels. And when you apologize, you have to keep the other person's feelings at top of mind.

KELLY: You have a whole chapter, Chapter 3, about things not to say. Like what?

INGALL: Oh, words that don't belong in an apology - obviously - if it was obvious, you wouldn't have to say it; regrettable; already - I've already apologized is a thing we hear a lot; dialogue - this isn't about dialogue, this is about, you know, you have to be listening, and you have to just share the stuff that is relevant to the other person; positivity; Jesus (laughter); journey; self-discovery; and, of course, sorry if, sorry but, sorry you.

MCCARTHY: I didn't mean to.

KELLY: (Laughter).

INGALL: Yeah. Intent is far less important than impact when it comes to apologies.

KELLY: OK. To the point about impact, you make the point that a bad apology is one that the person on the receiving end thinks, OK, I was mad before, but now I am really mad. It is possible for a bad apology to make things way worse.

MCCARTHY: That's absolutely true. It's akin to the cover-up being worse than a crime. And, you know, if you make an apology that says, you know, you shouldn't even have a white sofa...

(LAUGHTER)

MCCARTHY: ...You shouldn't have been standing there.

KELLY: You shouldn't have let my dog bite you.

(LAUGHTER)

INGALL: Yeah.

MCCARTHY: Precisely.

KELLY: Either of you ever been on the receiving end of a truly terrible apology?

INGALL: I would rather tell you about being on the receiving end of a really great apology.

KELLY: Sure.

INGALL: I received a letter years after a breakup from a boyfriend who just wanted me to know - it was a letter, and letters always have sort of special, holy import in our culture now. And he just said, I wanted you to know I'm getting married, and I'm aware that I was often not a good boyfriend. And I want you to know that I was listening even when it didn't seem like I was listening. And I'm going to be a better husband because of our relationship.

And there was no return address. And it was just the nicest thing. There was no expectation of a response, and I still had some sad and angry feelings about that relationship, and it felt so healing.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, who wouldn't love to get an apology like that? We've all had exes that you...

INGALL: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...That you would love to get a letter like that from. And it - did it help with the bad feelings?

INGALL: It absolutely helped. It was - it made a lot of things magically get cast in a new light, and it felt like it was good for my relationships moving forward too. I mean, a real - a good apology is a really, really potent thing, I think, in some ways we don't even understand yet.

KELLY: That is Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy. Their new book is "Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case For Good Apologies." Thanks to you both.

INGALL: Thanks so much for having us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Thank you, Mary Louise. That was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG, "GROOVE HOLMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.