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Minggu, 21 April 2013

Go Ahead, Say You're Sorry (Part I)

By Aaron Lazare
Apologies can restore relationships--but there's a right way and a wrong way to do them.

We tend to view apologies as a sign of weak character. But in fact, they require great strength. And we better learn how to get them right, because it's increasingly hard to live in the global village without them. A genuine apology offered and accepted is one of the most profound interactions of civilized people. It has the power to restore damaged relationships, be they on a small scale, between two people, such as intimates, or on a grand scale, between groups of people, even nations. If done correctly, an apology can heal humiliation and generate forgiveness.

Yet, even though it's such a powerful social skill, we give precious little thought to teaching our children how to apologize. Most of us never learned very well ourselves. Despite its importance, apologizing is antithetical to the ever-pervasive values of winning, success, and perfection. The successful apology requires empathy and the security and strength to admit fault, failure, and weakness. But we are so busy winning that we can't concede our own mistakes. The botched apology--the apology intended but not delivered, or delivered but not accepted--has serious social consequences. Failed apologies can strain relationships beyond repair or, worse, create life-long grudges and bitter vengeance.

As a psychiatrist who has studied shame and humiliation for eight years, I became interested in apology for its healing nature. I am perpetually amazed by how many of my friends and patients--regardless of ethnicity or social class--have long-standing grudges that have cut a destructive swath through their own lives and the lives of family and friends. So many of their grudges could have been avoided altogether or been reconciled with a genuine apology. In my search to learn more about apologies, I have found surprisingly little in the professional literature. The scant research I've unearthed is mostly in linguistics and sociology, but little or nothing touches on the expectations or need for apologies, their meaning to the offender and offended, and the implications of their failure.

Religious writings, however, in both Christian and Jewish traditions, are a rich source of wisdom on the subject, under such headings as absolution, atonement, forgiveness, penance, and repentance. The Talmud, in fact, declares that God created repentance before he created the universe. He wisely knew humans would make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of apologizing to do along the way.

No doubt the most compelling and common reason to apologize is over a personal offense. Whether we've ignored, belittled, betrayed, or publicly humiliated someone, the common denominator of any personal offense is that we've diminished or injured a person's self-concept. The self-concept is our story about ourselves. It's our thoughts and feelings about who we are, how we would like to be, and how we would like to be perceived by others.

If you think of yourself first and foremost as a competent, highly valued professional and are asked tomorrow by your boss to move into a cramped windowless office, you would likely be personally offended. You might be insulted and feel hurt or humiliated. No matter whether the interpersonal wound is delivered in a professional, family, or social setting, its depth is determined by the meaning the event carries to the offended party, the relationship between offender and offended, and the vulnerability of the offended to take things personally.

No-shows at family funerals, disputes over wills, betrayals of trust--whether in love or friendship--are situations ripe for wounds to the self-concept. Events of that magnitude put our self-worth on the line, more so for the thin-skinned. Other events people experience as personal offenses include being ignored, treated unfairly, embarrassed by someone else's behavior, publicly humiliated, and having one's cherished beliefs denigrated.

So the personal offense has been made, the blow to the self-concept landed, and an apology is demanded or expected. Why bother? I count four basic motives for apologizing: 
  • The first is to salvage or restore the relationship. Whether you've hurt someone you love, enjoy, or just plain need as your ally in an office situation, an apology may well rekindle the troubled relationship.
  • You may have purely empathic reasons for apologizing. You regret that you have caused someone to suffer and you apologize to diminish or end their pain.

The last two motives are not so lofty:
  • Some people apologize simply to escape punishment, such as the criminal who apologizes to his victim in exchange for a lesser plea.
  • Others apologize simply to relieve themselves of a guilty conscience. They feel so ashamed of what they did that, even though it may not have bothered you that much, they apologize profusely. A long letter explaining why the offender was a half hour late to dinner would be such an occasion. And in so doing, they are trying to maintain some self-respect, because they are nurturing an image of themselves in which the offense, lack of promptness, violates some basic self-concept

Whatever the motive, what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offense and redirect it to yourself. You admit to hurting or diminishing someone and, in effect, say that you are really the one who is diminished--I'm the one who was wrong, mistaken, insensitive, or stupid. In acknowledging your shame you give the offended the power to forgive. The exchange is at the heart of the healing process.

But in practice, it's not as easy as it sounds. There's a right way and a wrong way to apologize. There are several integral elements of any apology and unless they are accounted for, an apology is likely to fail.

First, you have to acknowledge that a moral norm or an understanding of a relationship was violated, and you have to accept responsibility for it. You must name the offense--no glossing over in generalities like, "I'm sorry for what I have done." To be a success, the apology has to be specific--"I betrayed you by talking behind your back" or "I missed your daughter's wedding."
You also have to show you understand the nature of your wrongdoing and the impact it had on the person--"I know I hurt you and I am so very sorry."

This is one of the most unifying elements of the apology. By acknowledging that a moral norm was violated, both parties affirm a similar set of values. The apology reestablishes a common moral ground.

The second ingredient to a successful apology is an explanation for why you committed the offense in the first place. An effective explanation makes the point that what you did isn't representative of who you are. You may offer that you were tired, sick, drunk, distracted, or in love--and that it will not happen again. Such an explanation protects your self-concept.

A recent incident widely reported in the news provides an excellent, if painful, illustration of the role of an apology in protecting the offender's self-concept. An American sailor apologized at his court-martial for brutally beating to death a homosexual shipmate: "I can't apologize enough for my actions. I am not trying to make any excuses for what happened that night. It was horrible, but I am not a horrible person."

Another vital part of the explanation is to communicate that your behavior wasn't intended as a personal affront. This lets the offended person know that he should feel safe with you now and in the future.

A good apology also has to make you suffer. You have to express genuine, soul-searching regret for your apology to be taken as sincere. Unless you communicate guilt, anxiety, and shame, people are going to question the depth of your remorse. The anxiety and sadness demonstrate that the potential loss of the relationship matters to you. Guilt tells the offended person that you're distressed over hurting him. And shame communicates your disappointment with yourself over the incident.

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