Research on How to Make an Effective Apology

I didn’t see this research until after I completed my book, The Road to Reconciliation, so I couldn’t include it; but I’m happy to report that the findings support what I said about how to make and screw up an apology. Most people screw them up.

In Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive, sociologists Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane, analyzed and studied the effectiveness of 183 celebrity apologies that occurred between October 2000 and October 2012.

They categorized each apology as utilizing denial, evasion, reduction, corrective action, and mortification. They identified seven sequences. Some, for instance, start out by focusing on the offender; some on the victim; others on the context. Once they categorized each apology, the researchers measured the apology’s effectiveness as indicated by opinion polls conducted shortly thereafter. An effective apology was defined as one that resulted in an improved opinion of the apologizer. In other words, Cerulo and Ruane only studied changes in public opinion, not the transformation of the character of the apologizer.

Less than a third of the apologies they looked at were effective with the public. In other words, at least two-thirds of apologies resulted in the apologizer digging a deeper hole for himself and becoming more contemptible. Cerulo and Ruane are able to say what works in making an apology.

  • Don’t wait, make an apology right away.
  • The first words in an apology matter. Don’t start by talking about how your life has been made more difficult since you got in trouble. Start by showing empathy for the victim.
  • Don’t apologize for what people think; apologize for what you did. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you misunderstood me.” Say, “I’m sorry I touched you without permission.”
  • No one wants to hear why you did it because it sounds like you’re making excuses.
  • Express regret and remorse.
  • If you express regret and remorse, actually feel regret and remorse. People can tell when you’re faking it.
  • Say what you’re doing to make restitution, but don’t say you’re going to rehab to make restitution. Rehab is not restitution. Rehab helps you, not the victim. Say what you’re doing to help the victim if you are able to make direct amends, or people like your victim, if you are not.
  • End your apology the same way you started it. The last words matter, too. End by showing empathy for the victim.
  • If you have already made your apology, but botched it, somehow; make a better one. You can still improve another’s opinion of you.

Like I said, Cerulo and Ruane only studied changes in public opinion, but, had they studied whether the apologizer repeated the offense after apologizing, in my experience I think they would have gotten the same results. I am eagerly awaiting the results of such a study.

What Breathing Can Teach Us About Relationships

Old PostsSometimes people have trouble grasping what it means to let go. If that’s the case, I have metaphors. Lots of metaphors. Here’s another one. Letting go is as simple as breathing; exhaling, to be precise.

The entire breathing cycle can be seen as a metaphor of relationships. You start off in need. You have desires. You believe that if you do not have this person, you will die. That’s like inhaling. You expand yourself to take this person in. You incorporate him or her into your life. You feel full.

Once you inhale, try to hold your breath. Fresh oxygen inevitably becomes suffocating carbon dioxide. You get dizzy, confused, desperate. If you persist, you will pass out. If you still don’t inhale, you will die.

The very person you desired will sooner or later becomes the source of aggravation. That thing that you once found so charming will drive you nuts. The personal quality that you did not possess, but thought your partner could provide, will not be as important as you once thought. It never really was important to you. If it was, you would’ve developed it in yourself. There will be meddlesome in-laws, misunderstandings, mismatched goals, competing careers, money problems, poor timing in sex, squally children that may not even be yours, incongruent tastes, all the foibles that never become evident until two people live together. There will be minor betrayals and maybe major ones. There will be things to forgive. You’ll act dizzy, confused, desperate. If it persists, you’ll be out of there. If you don’t leave, something will die inside.

Exhale. Expel. Forgive. Let go. It feels good, doesn’t it? You were tense, holding it in, and you may not have even known it. Now you’re ready and able to desire again.

There are some who believe they can avoid this cycle in their relationships. They believe that if they find the perfect person, the relationship will never sour. They think that, if they can change their partner, everything will be all right. You might just as well wish for oxygen that will never become carbon dioxide.

By the way, oxygen does not become carbon dioxide by itself. It’s you that does it; and it’s you who turns what she does into aggravation, resentment, anger, and hurt. They’re your emotions. You made them.

To be sure, just as there is poisonous air, there are also poisonous relationships, affiliations that should be avoided. Your relationship might be making you sick. If that is the case, it may have to be ended. Even if that’s the case. Even if you are in a poisonous relationship, like poisonous air, you still need to exhale. Let go, let the poison out. You might even desire another again.

The Dance of Relationship: A Guide to the Positions

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When we think about love, we may picture something like this: <>

This position is called Turning Towards. You’re facing each other, open to each other, and paying attention to no one but each other. You may be touching.

You might believe this is the most desirable of the positions, but it’s very intense. It’s hard to do anything else when you are Turning Towards. It’s also hard to sustain attention totally to your partner, and it may feel threatening to have someone pay attention to you, not missing a thing. Still, the moments in which we are Turning Towards are meaningful, tender, and warm.

It’s also the position you are in when you are in a fight.

The second position looks something like this: > <

This is Turning Away. Most of life in a relationship is like this. You may be mad at one another, but, more likely, you’re just busy and doing other things. Love can look like this, too. It may be a picture of two people who feel so secure in one another that they can let each other go and pay attention to other things. When you are permitted to turn away, you are free to explore.

Watch what happens when one partner changes position and turns toward. You get the third and forth positions: < < and > >

Turning Towards/Turning Away. In these positions, one partner is paying attention to the other while the other is attentive to something or someone else.

Sometimes, the Turning Toward partner is content watching. He simply admires his spouse, enjoys seeing her interact with others. He has no need for attention.

The Turning Away partner may feel her spouse has her back. He’s there if she needs him. She’s comfortable being the object of his attention.

Often, though, there’s an insecurity in this position. They’re the most unstable. Turning Towards/Turning Away can be very uncomfortable for both parties.

The Turning Towards one may feel ignored, neglected, and abandoned. He might feel jealous of the object of the partner’s attention. He may blame himself for being sticky, dependent, and needing excessive reassurance.

The Turning Away partner may feel clung to, limited by him. She may believe her partner has excessive demands. She may have the urge to flee.

These positions are sometimes the beginning of a ghastly dance. One partner clings, while the other breaks away. The more the one clings, the more the other needs to escape. The more the one avoids, the more the other hangs on.

There is a final position that should be noted. It looks like this: < O >

In this one, both partners are focused on the same thing. It could be a show they’re watching, a problem they’re trying to solve, or a child they’re raising. Having an important common purpose can be the most compelling reason to be in a relationship. You do more together than you could possibly do alone. However, the thing you are both focused on can be the thing that separates you and forces you apart.

Spend a few days noticing these positions in the natural world. See what it feels like for you to be in each position and see what you instinctively do next.

When You Need Your Space

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Some days, you just need your space.

The trouble is, your partner is there, too, and if you try to get some space, they may take it personally. You don’t want to get into a long discussion over why you need your space when you need your space. It may not be good to get into discussions when you need your space. They seldom go well, then.

What you need, at times like that, is a hat.

Not just any ordinary hat, but a hat that is easily recognizable and officially designated as the I Need My Space Hat.

So, some time when you don’t need your space, pick out a hat and talk with your partner. Put the hat in a common area where both of you can find it. Whenever you need your space, put on the hat. Only use this hat for that one purpose. The hat communicates something to your partner, so you don’t have to. It says, I need my space. It’s not about you, it’s about me. I’ll tell you why when I take off the hat.

It’s important that you have this discussion first, before you need it, so both of you understand what the hat means. It’s also important to obey the hat, no matter which one of you is using it. Finally, it’s important to talk after you take the hat off. Tell your partner why you think you needed your space and was going on with you.

Some days, you just need your space and it’s hard to get it. Unless you use a hat.

Love: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

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I can guess how this sounds, but love relationships remind me of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two conspirators are arrested and brought into separate interview rooms. They are both given the opportunity to turn state’s witness against the other. The one that takes the deal goes free, and the other gets ten years. If both confess, each gets six years. If they both refuse, they both get six months.

If I was in this situation, my answer would depend on the nature of the alliance I had developed with my partner in crime. In every relationship there are multiple opportunities in which we choose to either cooperate with the other or go our own way. Most of these occasions don’t have the consequence of being sentenced to prison for ten years, but you get the sense of a person’s loyalty if they pick up the check at the diner when you plan the crime, bring their own burglary tools, and take off in the getaway car before you get in. You also get an idea of the cost of betrayal when you scarf up the tip he left, bend his best lock pick, and arrive late because you couldn’t decide on a color for a ski mask.

Every one of these tests is a miniature prisoner’s dilemma and every one of these tests is found almost continuously in every kind of relationship. Temptations abound, no matter where you are, especially in love. Do you steal the blanket? Put the seat down for her? Do you give her the first piece of toast in the morning? Do the dishes? Get up to answer the phone even when you know it’s for her? When she tells you about that dress she’s going to buy do you really pay attention, or just nod and smile? When she’s not listening do you talk about her with respect? Do you flirt when she’s not looking? Are you adult enough to admit there’s adultery afoot?

We form alliances because we get a better reward when we both cooperate, but it’s inevitable that every alliance is going to be violated in some way. It is impossible to go along with every little thing your partner wants. How are these inevitable violations handled? When you tug the blanket, does she tug back? Does she go all ape shit when you pee on the seat? When you put the seat down for her, does she put it up for you? Does she put the flirting in perspective, forgive the adultery? If she does, does it make her a patsy? If she doesn’t, is she just being a bitch?

Scientists have studied the prisoner’s dilemma by having players adopt certain strategies to see which win most often. Some will always cooperate, no matter how strong the temptation. Those players end up exploited. Their partners have no reason to play along since there is no penalty for failing. Others never work together with their partners, they give in to temptation every time. No one ends up trusting them. They say the winning strategy is called Tit-for-Tat: cooperate every time until your partner fails to, then punish him by withholding cooperation at the next opportunity. This will teach him a thing or two.

There’s one problem with that, though. We believe we are much better at detecting when we lose our partner’s engagement than we really are. The next time you are having a conversation with someone, watch her and you will see there are moments that she does not appear to pay attention, a minor violation in the alliance that could really piss you off. The thing is, she might actually be paying attention, or she might be the kind that can pay attention to two things at once. Ask her what you just said and you might be surprised that she can repeat it word for word.

There are times, though, that she can’t. You lost her; she tuned out, spaced out, went blank. It happens. If you taped it, hit the rewind, and play it back, you might discover something. You were boring. You went on and on and were inattentive to non-verbal cues that she wanted to participate in the conversation. Or you made your point in such a way that she couldn’t follow. Each of these errors is a violation of the alliance. You broke faith before she did.

We have built in, exquisite instruments that detect betrayal so sensitively calibrated that we are always chasing false alarms. What’s more, the instrument does not work on the operator. You don’t know when you are doing it. There’s a moral to the story. When you believe that your partner is violating your alliance, look to see if maybe you did so first.

 

 

The Rock Tumbler

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Back when my son was a child, he used to dig holes in the back yard. He would adopt stones that he liked and would line the shelves of his room with them. His mother used to complain of the grime he brought into the house, until, noting a sustained interest in geology; we got him a rock tumbler.

You may have had some dealings with a rock tumbler. It’s basically a drum attached to a small motor by way of a belt that rotates incessantly all the live long day. Put a few dull, brown, craggy, soil caked rocks in the drum, add a bit of water, shut the hatch, turn on the motor, and you can keep the whole family from sleeping for a week. When your Dad yells at you to turn the damn thing off so he can get some rest, you open it, reach in, and your unremarkable stones have transformed into smooth, radiant gems.

There’s a rock tumbler for people, too; a people tumbler. We call it love. Continue reading