Day 6

An apology expert's advice after Justin Trudeau's SNC-Lavalin affair

Given how often Justin Trudeau delivers public apologies, shouldn’t he be better at it? Psychologist, author, and apology expert, Harriett Lerner offers her reaction to Trudeau's 'sorry-not-sorry' and the dangers of under- and over-apologizing.

'A bad apology, even more than an absent apology, compromises a relationship or can even end it'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the community centre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. where he had just made an announcement on infrastructure funding on Wednesday, August 14, 2019. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)
Listen7:18

Faced with a report that found he violated Canada's Conflict of Interest Act, on Wednesday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he accepted Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion's findings, but stopped short of apologizing for the breach.

Trudeau was found to have improperly pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general, to interfere in the criminal prosecution of the Quebec engineering giant. On Thursday, Wilson-Raybould told CBC News that she expected to hear, "I'm sorry."

Yet, the prime minister doubled-down this week, refusing to apologize for protecting jobs. "I'm not going to apologize for standing up for Canadians' jobs because that's my job," he told reporters.

An apology from Trudeau would hardly be unprecedented. 

Since taking office in 2015, he has made public apologies for the government's LGBT purge, the 1864 hanging of five Tsilhqot'in chiefs, to residential schools victims in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Komagata Maru incident in 1914, and for the government's 1939 decision to turn away M.S. St. Louis — a ship carrying 1,000 passengers, including German Jews, from war-torn Europe.

Harriet Lerner, a clinical psychologist and author of Why Won't You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury about how to apologize and make it count.

Here's part of that conversation.

You're in Kansas — you're not in the daily discussion of Canadian politics — and I don't believe you know the details of this scandal, but you do know apologies. What did you hear in the tape that we just played?

I heard the prime minister say that he fully accepts responsibility but that he's not sorry; he didn't do anything wrong. So we call that a sorry-not-sorry.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped in Fredericton on Thursday 0:48

When you get an apology wrong, how does that affect the trust in the relationship between the parties?

We're all apology challenged in some way and it's very difficult.

Humans are wired for defensiveness, so it's very difficult for us to take clear and direct responsibility for specifically what we've said and done, or not said and done, without a hint of evasion, blaming, obfuscation or excuse-making.

And actually a bad apology, even more than an absent apology, compromises a relationship or can even end it. A bad apology actually deepens the original injury.

If somebody is reluctant to apologize, but apologizes any way, would that raise red flags for you?

Obviously we want an apology to be sincere.

We want the wrongdoer to care about our feelings and beyond saying I'm sorry, we want them to really get it and to validate our reality and to empathize and to feel some remorse and to carry some of the pain. So when apology is not genuine and not sincere, it doesn't sit well for any of us.

When an apology is not sincere, do you get the sense that the person is trying to protect themself; that the person is reluctant to make a full exposure of the things that they've done wrong?

Many people are well-intentioned and they really want to apologize and they don't know how, and they've said "I'm sorry" and they don't understand why the hurt party doesn't soften up.

But usually there is a very predictable error in their apology in terms of how they muck it up like. For example they might use the word "but": "I'm really sorry I did what I did, but I was totally swamped with work. I had so much going on."

It doesn't matter if what you say after the but is true, the but makes the apology false. It always signifies a rationalization, a criticism, an excuse. 

Former Canadian Justice Minister and current Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks to supporters about her political future during a news conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, May 27, 2019. (Jackie Dives/Reuters)

Some people apologize a lot — and sometimes they're kind of good at it — but are there dangers, do you think, in being a person that over apologizes?

Absolutely. Over-apologizing creates distance, it interrupts the normal flow of conversation and it will irritate your friends. So it's important to know how to offer an apology when apology is due, but not this string of reflexive sorries.

I know you don't want to talk about Canadian politics, but in the United States you have a president that doesn't apologize for anything. Do you see an advantage in politics in being that person?

No, absolutely not. And just as the case is when parents can't apologize, when you have a leader who can't apologize it trickles down and it affects everybody beneath him.

We have a president who considers apologizing some kind of weakness when actually it's a gift — it's a gift to the country when you can be accountable, when you can orient toward reality, when you can say, "I'm sorry, I was wrong."

It's also a gift to the self, especially for leaders but for all of us. Our self-respect, our level of maturity, our ability to lead rests squarely on our ability to see ourselves objectively, to see how our behaviour affects others and to assume unequivocal responsibility for our mistakes.


This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Harriet Lerner, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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