Don't Apologize. Change

Recently, I wrote an article for The Drum about sexual harassment.
In it, I detailed two of the many instances in my career where I was sexually harassed or subjected to a hostile work environment. I got a text from one of the men who participated. He said that he had read my article, it had hurt his feelings, that I had misrepresented him, and I wasn’t being honest. 

My initial thought was to respond that he had misspelled “I’m really sorry for harassing you.” 

But I decided to ask him if he wanted to open a dialogue or call me a liar. I pointed out that the events had happened as I described them, that other people had been there, and that my reaction couldn’t be a surprise as I had complained to the CFO at the time. 

I also told him that many men who have been called out for their past behavior now say that they were misrepresented and that they’ve been hurt. I asked whether he wanted to use this as an opportunity to grow and change or just blame me. 

His response indicated he was still all about blame, so I let it go. But it got me thinking about apologies, amends, and changing behavior.  

The responses by powerful men who have been accused of sexual harassment share certain characteristics. 

They talk about their feelings – embarrassment, regret. They are used to waving their feelings like a flag and having women stop what they are doing and respond. The implication is that their feelings are more important than the feelings of the women they have hurt. 

They make excuses. I was drunk, I thought she had feelings for me, I thought I had permission. They consistently minimize their actions, asserting their narrative over the women’s with talk of context and misrepresentation and intention. They haven’t figured out that people judge you for your actions, not your intentions. 

They sometimes point to their understanding of themselves as men who support women, clinging to their deluded sense of self in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. I’m astonished that men who have consistently been told by women that they are assholes will discount that and hold fast to their belief in themselves as feminists. That’s because most white men get to decide who they are, while women are too often told by others who they get to be. Many women believe the lies – you’re too fat, too old, too pushy—but these men don’t believe the truth. 

In short, these men with their “apologies” stay in that position of power – listen to me, I’m going to talk over you, I’m going to convince you that I am right, and you are wrong. 

These are not apologies, they are justifications, crafted to avoid or minimize consequences. 

Amending your behavior is different from apologizing. Making amends means that you accept responsibility, change how you operate, and become willing to step out of your cherished notions of yourself to take in another person’s point of view.  

Since it is most often men harassing women, that is my main focus, but of course men, both straight and gay, have been harassed as well. 

Many men genuinely want to amend their behavior. I had a former employee get in touch with me recently to apologize for some unskillful behavior in our past working relationship. His behavior wasn’t gendered or harassment, it was just immature. But I appreciated the effort, the fact that he was willing to own his part and make a genuine amends. 

Here’s a guide, for my former boss and other men, about how to make an amends. 

1.    Step out of your privilege. Consider that every woman spends her life knowing that rape and domestic violence and even murder are a very real possibility in many interactions she has with a man. We start limiting our behavior when we are very young; not walking through a dark parking lot alone, carrying our drinks in a bar so we won’t be drugged and raped. We develop a constant vigilance to stay safe and alive. It is exhausting. We are afraid, and for good reason. Men can get us fired or promoted, they can make or break our careers. Understand that you have no way of knowing what that feels like. 

2.    Ask if you can make an amends. Not everyone wants to hear an apology or even be in the room with someone who harassed them. Ask, respectfully, if she is open to having a conversation where you can apologize to her. If she says no, let it go. If she agrees, give her the option of meeting in person, speaking on the phone or email. She gets to make this decision, not you – it’s not her job to process this with you, or to forgive you, or to assuage your guilt. Don’t go barging in and apologizing without asking for permission. 

3.    Admit that what you did was wrong, hurtful, and destructive. The person you hurt believed it was wrong, hurtful and destructive. You don’t have to agree with her, and if you don’t, she doesn’t have to change her mind about your behavior. Your job is not to convince her your narrative is the accurate one, your job is to make making for her story. To amend your behavior, start by stepping out of the power dynamic and listening and validating the experience of the person you hurt. Your feelings have no bearing. This may come as a shock, since women generally make all sorts of considerations for how men feel, but this is not the time or place for that. It’s her turn.  

4.    Listen. What did it mean to her? How did it feel? How did it impact her life? Her career? 

5.    Apologize simply and comprehensively. “I’m so very sorry that I created a workplace that minimized, damaged, and disrespected you as a person.” “I’m sorry that I assaulted you. It was inexcusable and wrong.” Your apology must include the actual words “I am sorry” and state exactly what you did. No excuses, no justification.

6.     Ask what you can do to make it better. Listen more. Then do that thing. Don’t take an action that is what you would want, or what you think is best – that is you stepping into the power position again and assuming you know better than she does what she needs or wants. Just do what she asks you to do.

7.     Let go of your expectations. She may or may not accept your amends. She may or may not change how she interacts with you, or drop a lawsuit, or start singing your praises in the coffee room. I don’t know why she’s still mad, I apologized, is, again, stepping into the power dynamic. Just because you apologized doesn’t mean she is instantly fine and ready to polish your image as a good guy again. That may not happen. Let it go. You are experiencing the consequences of your choices, and that may mean some relationships are not going to ever come back.

I know that there are men who genuinely regret their past unskillful choices, and are ready to be accountable and change their behavior. Hopefully this guide will help open a genuine and productive dialogue, or at the very least allow men to apologize more skillfully.






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