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Psychologist Molly Howes on how to say you’re sorry

David Wilson For The Boston Globe

In “A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right,” psychologist Molly Howes draws from a wide range of expertise — from psychotherapy to religion to the business world — to understand and explain what makes for a good apology and why. Her research began rooted in her own work as a couples’ therapist, but it expanded, she said, “because I think there’s a lot of hurt in the world that could be healed and isn’t.”

A good apology goes far beyond the two words parents often present as magic — “I’m sorry” — and extends into listening to the other party express the hurt they experienced, making whatever amends are required, and working to avoid committing the same offences again. In other words, it’s easier said than done.


“I do think that the steps are based on virtually universal needs,” she said. The difficulty, she added, is in getting started. “I think we need to listen to each other better,” Howes said. “And I think it requires a bit of a cognitive shift. We have to overcome protecting our cherished self-concept.”

It’s also necessary, especially in moments of real conflict. “This model can apply on any scale,” Howes said. “For example, in the current cultural moment in the US where so many white people are focused on contributing to antiracism, I think this model can provide a framework for how white people can sustain their allyship and work towards real change.”

If there’s one thing Howes hopes people will take from the book, she added, “I’d like it to be that when things go wrong between you and someone else, or between big groups of people, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Repair is often possible.”

Molly Howes will be in conversation with the Globe’s Meredith Goldstein at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 22, in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store. Check for more details.


Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at