I’ve learned that, in legal encounters, apologies are often avoided. Over the years, I’ve occasionally encountered situations where I’ve got contracts that are materially breached by larger entities. The degree to which the breach caused me harm could be questioned, but the fact that they violated the terms of the agreement couldn’t. In truth, when I confronted them on the issue, I didn’t want any restitution, I wanted them to agree to not repeat the transgression. However, instead of an apology, I got stonewalled, and it was frustrating.
In Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, John Kador explains how to do an effective apology and, more importantly, why we don’t always do them. Stonewalling may be a very bad thing to do to a relationship, but it’s something that lawyers have been taught to do. (See The Science of Trust for more on stonewalling.)
There’s a funny thing about apologies when it comes to legal conflicts. Attorneys are taught not to show their hands to their opponents and certainly not to give them things they can use in court to their client’s detriment. Apologies are treated as acts of admission and therefore reduce the burden of proof for the opposing counsel. However, the research is emerging that apologies are often much less costly than arguing it out. We’re finding that not only are the plaintiffs – or wronged parties – much less aggressive in their demands, juries are more compassionate to those who seem contrite.
Despite the fact that 34 states have laws prohibiting the use of doctors’ statements of regret against them, malpractice attorneys still often recommend that their clients not apologize – and, more frequently, route all communications through the attorneys.
Apologies are both a perfect solution to imperfection and a signal that we’re more interested in relationships and truth than our ego. Apologies aren’t easy, but they’re an essential ingredient to a life that is aligned with finding truth instead of accepting our perceptions as if they’re fact. It’s a critical resuscitation of relationships that are struggling under the weight of hurt. As imperfect humans, we must accept that we are going to make mistakes. What matters is how we handle them.
Compassion for the Victim
The center of an effective apology is the compassion for the victim. That is, we must first recognize the harm caused to the victim, and then we have to have a desire to provide some form of restoration for them. Too often, we view apologies as a ticket to instant forgiveness. It isn’t. We twist the apology to support feeling good about ourselves. We take the focus away from the important issue that someone has been harmed – and, as someone we’re in a relationship with, we care.
Outcomes Not Intent
Explanations – in general – complicate apologies. The reason for that is simple. The victim was hurt, and that’s what matters. They’ll have to heal, but they want to believe that they won’t be hurt again. (See Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting for more about the pathway of hurt.) In general, explanations don’t matter, especially if the intent was hurtful – to hurt the person intentionally, that’s worse, because it implies that it’s the character of the person and therefore it may happen again. It gets harder as we move away from intentional hurt and towards unintentional hurt.
The next level of evaluation is whether the outcome was reasonably foreseeable. Could or should you have foreseen the harm you might cause when you took – or failed to take – the action? This is often where things break down. We live in a random, probabilistic world where outcomes are never truly certain. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of our world.) We also live in a world with diverse experiences, where it’s not possible to know what everyone who we will interact with will have been through.
Decades ago, if you wanted to have something to talk about, you could talk about what was on television last night or what the community concert was like. These helped to synchronize us by giving us all one relatively common experience that we could build from. NBC had “must-see TV.” Before that, the world of three television channels (if you were lucky) meant that everyone basically saw one of three things. Today, we have time-delayed viewing of television, so we don’t know what someone has or has not seen – except for major sporting events. That doesn’t even address the fact that people are watching YouTube and TikTok, and the variety and reservoir of content is vast.
It’s becoming harder and harder to find shared experiences and therefore a shared understanding of what might cause someone harm. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff tackle trigger warnings and the relative absurdity that happens when we try to prevent people from ever being unsettled by content. Apologies are the way we get around that. We simply say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that would be upsetting to you. What can I do next time?”
We are, at our core, prediction engines. We use our massively expensive brains to predict a future that we expect to see. Our brains, in fact, use somewhere between 20-30% of our body’s glucose (energy) while amounting for only 2-3% of our body mass. Our brains’ abilities are keenly focused on not just basic pattern-matching type prediction, which we share with other animals, but also the ability to forecast the future and, importantly, predict the behavior of others.
We’ve emerged as the dominant life form on the planet by our ability to work together. Our cooperation and our predictive capacity are twin benefits of our brain. (See The Righteous Mind for more.) That has allowed humans without extensive fur, thick skin, powerful claws, or sharp teeth to thrive. It turns out that the ability to work together is more evolutionarily important than any of those attributes. (See The Selfish Gene, The Evolution of Collaboration, and Does Altruism Exist? for more on evolution and the forces.)
Prediction, while being a fundamental aspect of consciousness, is far from perfect. The Signal and the Noise and Superforecasting both lay out the challenges with predicting the future – and offer some help with what can be done to improve it. However, neither of these really reach the depths of exploring the problem of prediction as Noise does, which lays out how our judgement is flawed. Of course, Noise isn’t alone in this – How We Know What Isn’t So, Predictably Irrational, Incognito, The Tell-Tale Brain, and many more illuminate these problems.
Working together is a complicated process. It turns out that we can read people’s minds – something we call “theory of mind.” (See Mindreading for more.) However, we can’t read people’s minds with absolute certainty. Instead, we can only approximate what we believe that the other person is thinking. Our predictive capacity is based on our shared experience. As we move to less and less shared experience, we’re increasingly less likely to be able to predict what is in someone else’s mind.
“You Should Have Known”
It’s one of those phrases that sets my hair on end. Someone says, “Well, you just should have known.” I wonder, exactly how? The answer is rarely forthcoming, and the reality is that we can’t expect others to know what’s inside our heads. In fact, when we do, it’s like we’re setting a trap for them. If they miss the cue, or they guess incorrectly, then it means they don’t care about us or love us. John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains how we have sliding door moments, where we can turn towards someone, away from them, or against them. Turning away is to ignore the other person – not necessarily intentionally – and against them is to snap back.
What’s interesting is that, by saying that the other person should have known, we’re positioning a conflict on unreasonable grounds – and that’s just not fair.
Judgement – Understanding vs. Agreement
Topping the list of things that separate us from relationships and each other is judgement. When we judge that someone is doing something bad, we shun them and separate. However, if want to get through an argument or apologize, we need to avoid judgement. Instead of looking for agreement with the other person – judging them positively – we need to stop and focus on understanding. To achieve an effective apology, we need to understand how the other person felt – even if we don’t agree that those feelings are reasonable. We can accept that their understanding of the situation is their understanding – even when it doesn’t match reality.
We do, of course, need to make the decision about whether we try to bring reality into the situation if their perception doesn’t match reality – but often times, this makes things worse. Tom Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So that they don’t attempt to openly accept disconfirming evidence. Instead, they move to “must they” accept it. That’s a very high bar that’s hard to meet.
The Five Dimensions
Kador proposes that every effective apology has the following five dimensions:
- Recognition – Acknowledgement of what hurt the other party.
- Responsibility – The actions (or inactions) that led to the other party’s harm.
- Remorse – The acknowledgment that the other party’s harm wasn’t right.
- Restitution – An offer to compensate the other party for the harm they felt.
- Repetition – A commitment to prevent or avoid future harm.
The lack of any of these dimensions puts the apology effectiveness at risk.
One of the questions that comes up when someone apologizes is whether they have remorse – or whether they simply regret getting caught. This doubt comes from the lack of trust in the repetition. When someone doesn’t express any intent to stop the behavior – or the expression isn’t believed – then we’re faced with the idea that the person doesn’t regret the action or the harm that it caused but rather that it was discovered. This often occurs when there’s a breach of trust such as infidelity.
The expression that the behavior won’t happen again is often a stumbling block to the apology. There are some places where it’s impossible to say that you won’t make a mistake again. Consider, for a moment, that you have friend who is transitioning gender, and you use the wrong pronouns in your conversation with them. You can certainly commit to continued efforts to prevent using the wrong pronoun – but providing a guarantee that you’ll never use the wrong pronouns again is unrealistic.
Conversely, if there’s a behavior that clearly violated moral boundaries, it is expected that one would commit to preventing another offense. In the extreme, if someone murders another person, it’s reasonable to ask that they commit to not murder anyone else.
Whether directly stated or simply implied, the apology creates an expectation that the person apologizing will not repeat the behavior. In the interest of the relationship, whatever the expectation set by the apology is, it should be met. Failure further erodes trust, even trust in apologies. We have a saying “Sorry, not sorry” that describes this condition. Someone speaks an apology without any intention of changing (or even monitoring) their behavior.
Ultimately, an apology is an attempt to recover a relationship. Sometimes this means that we have to give up the sense that we’re right – but it always means that we need to consider the impact of the act and the apology on trust. (See The Titleless Leader for more on “right or in relationship” and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more on trust.)
The timing of an apology should be set by the person who was harmed. They should be able to find conditions that makes them the most comfortable. Twelve-step groups believe the person who has been harmed should control the conditions of an apology (amends) and when it should be made – including the possibility that “never” is a valid answer. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.)
Ain’t No Thing
If someone makes the effort to do an honest apology, the recipient shouldn’t dismiss the apology. Telling the apologizer that it’s “no big deal” or “don’t worry about it” dismisses their commitment to the relationship. Certainly, letting them know the apology is accepted is good. However, dismissing the apology may be dismissing their honest attempt at improving their own behaviors.
It’s important to note two things about forgiveness. First, forgiveness isn’t a given. Second, forgiveness isn’t forgetting. A good apology, Kador explains, shouldn’t ask for forgiveness. It should be entirely focused on the harm that was inflicted. When you ask for forgiveness, you necessarily shift the focus from the victim to you. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Forgiveness isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. It doesn’t mean that the other person won’t be suspicious or observant in the future. It’s just the release of the relational poison.
That’s the best hope. If you can remove the relational poisons, then you’re doing an Effective Apology.
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