Last year U.S. Senator George Allen went serially apologizing across Virginia after demeaning a man of Indian descent at a campaign rally as “Macaca or whatever his name is.” Up popped a virtual cartoon bubble caption over his head - “racist.” By continuing to exhibit the same lack of understanding about his mistake each time he apologized, that caption worsened, from “racist” to “bumbling politician” to “bumbling politician who does not learn.”
He did not mean harm but he did harm his reputation by not learning the lesson on how to say,
”I was wrong.
This is why.
This what I am going to do about it.”
Even a TV soap opera couldn’t match recent real life lessons on the need to learn when and how to apologize. For most situations you and I will face there are proper ways to apologize that often evoke respect and sometimes bring people closer. Doctors are learning, for example that it pays to apologize– even if it is difficult to do. Here are four tips that have helped me.
1. Don’t beg. Do prove you mean you are sorry.No excuses. No delay. And forget groveling.
It doesn’t show your best side nor bring out the best in those from whom you want forgiveness. In debasing yourself you inadvertently evoke a righteous attack instinct in others who’ll then pile on their complaints.
"Never ruin an apology with an excuse." ~Kimberly Johnson
2. Put Enough Mea in Your Culpa
3. Make it Right When One of You Gets it Wrong
Whenever you disagree about something and find out later that you were right, be humble and do not point it out. Yet if you were wrong, be the first to point it out and to praise that person for getting it right and, if appropriate, apologize. You gain emotional deposits in the bank of your relationship whether it is with a friend, colleague or spouse.
"To keep your marriage brimming, With love in the loving cup, Whenever you're wrong, admit it; Whenever you're right, shut up." ~ Ogden Nash
Imagine, for example, after a top tennis player loses a big match, he tells the media, "I guess I’m not fully recovered from that sprain, I just wasn't on my game today.”
How would you feel about him if he said, instead, “My opponent played extraordinarily well today. He deserved to win and I commend him on his game. Of course this game motivates me to practice harder.”
Relatedly, when you want to be-friend a critic, evoke the Confirmation Bias. Ask him to do some small favor for you. He’ll make this instinctual mental leap: "I do not do favors for jerks and because I do not, she must not be that big a jerk." The mind cannot hold two thoughts at once, so it bridges the dissonance with this self-justification.
4. Don’t Get Deluded by Confirmation Bias
Stephen Colbert said to President Bush at the National Press Club’s annual roast: "What I admire about you Mr. President is that you believe the same thing on Wednesday that you believed on Monday no matter what happened on Tuesday."
Colbert’s describing cognitive dissonance.
It happens because we all want to think of ourselves as good human beings, smart, and caring. When confronted with evidence that we have done something wrong, dumb, or uncaring, it conflicts with our self-image image and sets up dissonance.
Consequently we don’t take responsibility for our mistakes. We don’t apologize. Instead we rationalize to make the other person wrong. So concludes Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Mistakes Were Made.
That feeling of certainty is hard to shake. It creates a blind spot. That’s why it helps to practice stepping into the other person’s shoes, to step back when we get conflicting information to see if we need to change our mind or see if we were wrong and apologize.
That’s not easy but it seems easier than the alternatives in the long run.
See alsoFeeling Certain: How Our Brains Betray Us