How to Apologize in the #MeToo Era

It needs to center more on healing than finding redemption

Illustration of two people in disagreement
Apologies should be focused on acknowledging actions and making a plan to change them. Getty Images
Headshot of Bevan Mahaney

It’s been two years since the #MeToo movement gained national attention, and the accused are now re-emerging with apologies and explanations. Maybe they are looking for redemption, forgiveness, clarity or a job. Whatever they are seeking, many of their apologies haven’t been landing. No one outside the courts is here to prosecute these people, but it is important to decide how we perceive and react to attempts at conciliation.

Apologizing amid #MeToo is not an easy terrain to navigate, but if approached in the right way, it can be both powerful and deeply healing.

What does an apology done right look like? Writer and producer Dan Harmon apologized to his former employee, writer Megan Ganz, on his podcast. In it, Harmon offers a genuine apology for his actions. After getting it wrong two times prior and doing the work, he finally said the words that gave both of them the relief they sought.

Several years ago, Dan was Megan’s boss. He fell in love with her, and when she rebuffed his affection, he iced her out. He cut her out completely in her own workplace. It was a move that deeply affected her career and made her question her talent. To hear both of their opinions about the apology is moving. “It was cathartic in a way I could have never imagined. It was like receiving the antidote to a poison I’d been self-inflicting.” That’s how Megan explained the impact of his words.

This is the power of getting it right.

Apologies should be focused on acknowledging actions and making a plan to change them. They don’t work when you focus on the audience’s reaction. To do it right, it’s about focusing on the ways you are working to become more accountable.

[Apologies] don’t work when you focus on the audience’s reaction—which is to say that most men thus far ... are doing it wrong.

If you are looking to apologize for your actions, here are some rules of engagement.

Choose the right forum 

Find the appropriate outlet. Make sure the time and place are right. Don’t surprise people. Conferences or industry events are not good moments to address personal allegations. It distracts from the purpose of the occasion, and it might make people feel forced to engage. People should be able to opt in or out of your apology.

Own up to your actions

Own up to what you did, what fueled it and why it wasn’t OK. Acknowledge it. Absorb it. Let it sink in. Feel it. Think of someone you love going through the same thing. Drop your tendency to defend and sit with it. Don’t spend your time dismantling accusations. Be honest with yourself. Be honest with others. 

Resist comparison

Don’t compare yourself to other people or their actions. Don’t say how you are better or worse than them. It’s not your place, and it doesn’t matter. You are speaking only for yourself and your actions.

Make yourself vulnerable

This is not time to deflect or blame. It’s time to own up and open up. Genuinely share something you are learning about yourself. And don’t put it on others to reach out to you. It is OK, however, to be open to what you can do to rectify your behavior. This is healing for you more than anyone.

Do the work

Talk to women, men, your therapist and figure out how your actions or avoidance led to this situation. Practice seeing human beings, specifically women, for the complex and dynamic people they are, worthy of consideration and respect. This is an opportunity for personal transformation, but it will take time and effort.

Commit to improvement

This matters even if you’re just announcing an intention. Express and commit to something that makes up for your wrongdoings. People who have left prison frequently commit to doing one right thing every single day. Commit to helping others, and do that one right thing. Maybe change your career. It’s not going to go back to the way it was before; it shouldn’t, and that’s OK. There is work for you to do and a need for you to do it. 

The typical response to accusations in our culture is to lawyer up, defend and deny. Just ignore it, forget about it and move forward. But that only causes more harm. There is great power in allocution, as Ganz puts it. There’s power in owning exactly what you did while acknowledging how it hurt others.

It’s also important to note that people seek out and offer forgiveness in a variety of ways. There is no perfect apology, and we can’t exactly anticipate how an approach will be received by the person harmed. That said, the guidelines above can help people respectfully approach the process and minimize the likelihood of more hurt.

When efforts to remerge are approached in this way, both individuals and our entire culture can begin to heal. Personally, I’m less interested in stories of redemption than I am in actions that lead to healing.

Bevan Mahaney is an award-winning creative director and writer based in Los Angeles.