Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Apology and the Art of Conflict Resolution

Apparently, human beings are not as mean-spirited as some would have it. It’s good news indeed.

When philosophers created the fiction of human beings in a state of nature they sometimes suggested that humans are, at root, violent and selfish predators. If that is the case, then communities must be tasked with repressing the instinct to do harm.

If, as other philosophers had it, human beings were free and happy in their primitive state, human society has repressed their essential goodness and transformed it into badness.

In reality, the myth of the pre-social human being is a philosopher’s fiction. Human beings are social animals. As such, they possess an instinct for reconciliation, for resolving differences without resorting to conflict. This allows them to return cooperative enterprise.

In a recent study, University of Miami psychologist Michael McConnell explained:

People often think that evolution designed people to be mean, violent, and selfish, but humans need relationship partners, so natural selection probably also gave us tools to help us restore important relationships after they have been damaged by conflict.

Central to the reconciliation process is the proffer of a sincere apology.

Yahoo! reports McCullough’s description of such a gesture:

He [McCullough] found that the most sincere, forgiveness-inducing apologies include saying “I’m sorry,” offering to compensate in some way for the wrongdoing, and taking responsibility. And the reason they work so well is largely based on principles of evolution: the apologies make the transgressor seem more valuable as a relationship partner, and also help the victim feel less at risk of getting hurt again. 

One needs to be especially clear here. If you have hurt someone’s feelings by being rude or obnoxious or disrespectful, you should apologize. As best as I can tell, that is the situation McCullough is describing.

If, however, you find yourself in conflict with another individual, you have probably gone beyond apology. By itself, an apology will not resolve an all-out conflict.

For my part, I would add that an apology aims to undo what was done, to declare that the offensive action was unintentional and will not be repeated. In fact, a sincere apology includes a vow not to do it again.

If you apologize and then repeat the action for which you apologized, you have gone back on your word and have shown yourself to be untrustworthy. At that point, your friend is within his rights to believe that you possess a hostile intention toward him and that you are likely to exploit, abuse or slight him when the opportunity arises.

In a conflict, a hostile action is fully intended. It would be nice if conflicts could be negotiated away, but more often they are fought until one person wins and the other loses.

So far, so good.

Yet, the author of the Yahoo! article also chose to include the thoughts of a therapist named Bethany Marshall.

According to Marshall, apology is not about shame; it’s about empathy. As I have often pointed out today’s therapists believe that empathy will salve all wounds and solve all problems.

Yahoo! reports:

And having empathy when you’ve hurt someone, she [Marshall] says, is the best way to apologize. “The most important thing is that you feel the other person’s pain,” she explains. “So instead of using logic to explain or defend, look inward to identify why you did the bad thing. Then convey that to them and say that you would like to make it better. That’s repair.” You can make it even better by pledging to behave differently the next time around — what the study authors referred to as “compensation.” 

I quote this paragraph to show that when I say, as I do on occasion, that therapists believe that you should feel everyone’s pain, I am not making things up.

Unfortunately, Marshall has missed the point.

Most obviously, she has failed to understand that when someone offends you, you are likely to feel anger. You do not want the apologizer to feel your anger; you want him to feel ashamed of what he did.

The two are not the same… at all.

Apology is ritual behavior. Its sincerity will ultimately be judged, not by whether or not you feel anyone’s pain, but by whether you are good to your vow never to do it again.

Besides, shame is about you. It is an excruciating sense of having failed, especially a social duty or obligation. If you get caught with your pants down—the basis of shame—you do not feel badly because you feel the pain of those who have witnessed your dereliction. You feel badly because, henceforth, other people will have difficulty respecting you as an honorable member of the community.

You feel shame for having failed and your shame causes you to withdraw into yourself and to remove yourself from social intercourse. A conciliatory gesture is not the same thing as feeling someone else’s pain.

Happily, for me at least, Elizabeth Bernstein addressed the question of apology in her “Bonds” column in the Wall Street Journal yesterday.

Yet, her expert psychologists emphasize the use of apology in conflict resolution. In truth, apology is used to avoid conflict and to avoid drama. Rather than attempt to manage conflict, as one of Bernstein’s experts suggests, the goal of human relationships should be to negotiate differences and disputes.

It is not inevitable that a difference of opinion becomes a conflict. When psychologists emphasize managing conflict, they are telling people not to bother to negotiate their differences in order to avoid conflict.

For a disagreement to descend into a conflict, several conditions need to be met. One, if not both of the parties must have failed to negotiate the disagreement in order to restore harmony. Thus, it is likely that each party owes the other an apology.

If both apologize, then perhaps they can move on to resolve the problem through a negotiated compromise. But, the purpose of apology, in this as in all cases is to put it all behind you.

Bernstein summarizes today’s therapeutic wisdom:

Instead, it is crucial when repairing a personal rift to address the underlying issue. Fail to reach a resolution on the argument itself—not just the hurt feelings it caused—and you will end up fighting again in the future about the same thing. Even worse: You'll likely end up arguing about the argument.

It is important to distinguish arguing about the argument and resolving a dispute. If both parties apologize for allowing a dispute to degenerate into a conflict, they should put the argument behind them and address the issues.

If that is their goal, their therapists might not be of very much help. Therapists who tell their patients that conflict is inevitable are promoting arguments and disputes. They are subtly encouraging their patients to fight it out, rather than to negotiate differences.

For this piece of bad advice, they owe their patients an apology.


Anonymous said...

"People often think that evolution designed people to be mean, violent, and selfish, but humans need relationship partners, so natural selection probably also gave us tools to help us restore important relationships after they have been damaged by conflict."

Paradoxically, people are group-oriented to be 'mean, violent, and selfish' on a larger scale.
If you fight as a group, you can win more battles and gain more loot.

It's like packs of wolves and prides of lions. Social within the group but more formidable against enemies.

Anonymous said...