Martha Stewart wouldn’t do it. Neither would Janet Jackson, Pete Rose, Justin Timberlake, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, executives from Enron, WorldCom and other major corporations, politicians, government officials nor members of the media. Whether from fear of litigation or fear of losing face, some of the most powerful, wealthy and influential people in the world have been unwilling to do one simple thing that could have made a significant difference in their lives and the lives of others: make a sincere and proper apology.
In this age of lies and litigation, "We seem to be more and more proficient at making non-apologies," says Keith Hearit, Ph.D., author of a forthcoming book on apologies. "The archetypal phrasing is ‘Mistakes were made’, which serves only to acknowledge that something was done wrongly without really admitting it was you who did it." He adds that using words like "wrongdoing" or "unfortunate events" just serves to distance the person from actually taking responsibility for his or her actions.
In addition, conditional statements ("if anyone was offended, then I am sorry"), excuses and blame-shifting result in failed apologies. Non-apologies and failed apologies have become the new norm and, for high profile wrongdoers, they’re typically delivered via press conferences and public statements.
"An apology that fails is potentially more destructive than no apology at all," says Aaron Lazare, M.D., author of a new book entitled On Apology.
Truth . . . or consequences
The potential consequences of unwillingness to apologize can be severe. “If we went about interviewing individuals about relationships in their family and extended family, it would be difficult not to find a story in which relative A and B are not talking,” says Robyn Landow, Ph.D., Manhattan-based clinical psychologist. “These stories often become a concrete part of the family legacy — so much so that apologies and forgiveness aren’t even considered.” Over time, Dr. Landow says, extended family relationships break down, and family members on the periphery or totally uninvolved in the situation are forced to take sides, leading people to separate themselves from treasured relatives.
Sometimes, family members go to court over unresolved conflicts. Mediators who help parties to resolve conflict before they reach the courtroom often uncover long-standing resentment on the part of one party for a wrong that was never righted through an apology. (see related article: Dealing with Family Conflict? Family Mediation May Help)
In some of the high profile cases like those recently in the media, other serious consequences are involved — major corporations dismantled, employees laid off, lifetime savings lost. In the most extreme cases, the resentments caused by failure to apologize can even lead to violence.
Fear and apologies
Despite the serious consequences of not apologizing, we seem to have even greater fears about the potential consequences of doing so, including fear of the other person’s negative reaction toward us, fear of losing power or authority by admitting wrongdoing, and fear that such an admission indicates we’re weak, incompetent or just plain bad.
These fears are largely unfounded, says Dr. Lazare. In fact, he says, "Most responses to genuine apologies are expressions of gratitude."
As for the fears related to power, authority and weakness, "Few things are more powerful than having the common sense, wisdom, and strength to admit when you’ve made a mistake and to set things right," says Spencer Johnson, M.D., in the foreword to The One Minute Apology, by Ken Blanchard and Margret McBride.
When we struggle with apologies ourselves, Dr. Landow suggests examining roadblocks to apology and exploring possible outcomes to shed light on what may be preventing us from apologizing.
As parents, we can demonstrate that wisdom and strength by learning how to make proper apologies ourselves, then showing children how it’s done.
Start by honestly examining your own actions and motives to fully understand what you’ve done that has negatively affected the other person. "At the core of most problems is a truth you don’t want to face," says McBride. If you say "I’m sorry" but don’t really believe you did anything you need to apologize for, the apology will fail.”
“As soon as our children are verbal, we instruct them at the first sign of wrongdoing toward another to, ‘Say you’re sorry to Johnny,’” observes Dr. Landow. “All recreation stops until the child repeats the words. Often, Johnny’s mother will then instruct him to express in some way that the child is forgiven.” Dr. Landow points out that this brief and usually meaningless exchange between children at the parents’ command does little to help children understand the concepts of apology and forgiveness.
Instead, help children understand what they’ve done wrongly before they try to apologize. Ask, “Why might someone be angry at you right now?”, and “Why did you do that?” to help your child begin to examine internal motives. Acknowledge how hard it is to admit mistakes. “We often see parents yelling at their child when the child has just confessed to doing something wrong,” McBride says. Instead, she suggests, “Let him know how terrific it is that he was able to admit his mistake.”
The words matter
Once you understand what you’ve done, let the other person know you realize how you’ve hurt them. "The words matter," says Dr. Hearit. It’s important to specifically say "I’m sorry."
"The words don’t come easily," he adds. "Parents should acknowledge that it’s not an easy thing to do and commend children for their courage when they make sincere apologies."
Asking for forgiveness
Follow the apology with a humble request for forgiveness, but recognize that forgiveness may take time. Everett Worthington, Ph.D., executive director of A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, explains the difference between decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness.
Decisional forgiveness occurs when the other party makes a conscious decision that they won’t act negatively you or seek revenge. It’s simply a statement about how someone intends to regulate his or her behavior. Emotional forgiveness, however, comes when the other person is able to replace negative feelings with positive feelings. Emotional forgiveness can be more difficult.
When striving for emotional forgiveness, it can help to remember that the other person was only doing the best they could at the time. "Try to step into their world and see if you can gain some understanding of why they might have acted that way," advises Allison Steigman, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist who teaches Non-Violent Communication (NVC) via her practices in Manhattan and Forest Hills.
Dr. Worthington suggests helping children understand the distinction between levels of forgiveness and modeling forgiveness for them. "Share your own experiences about when you were hurt and how you got to the emotional forgiveness level, as age appropriate for your child," he suggests. "Say, ‘Mommy got angry with you when you disobeyed me, but I’m working on getting happier with you.’"
Dr. Landow adds, “Let a child know that ‘I forgive you’ might not immediately follow an apology and that forgiveness is a process.”
Says Dr. Lifshin, “It is important for parents to accept and validate a child’s apology. The parent can help the child to understand the importance of the apology for their ongoing relationship and what it means for the child to have understood the effect of their behavior on the parent.”
She advises anyone accepting an apology to view the issue in the context of the overall relationship, rather than focusing solely on the immediate difficult situation.
Setting things right
"An apology is incomplete without a sincere attempt to make things right," says McBride. Parents can help their child with this cathartic work. Approach it not as a punishment, but as a way for the child to demonstrate that the relationship with the other person is so important that the child is willing to work hard to restore the relationship. Have your child ask the person they’ve hurt, "What can I do to make up for hurting you?"
It’s also important for the other party to see that you aren’t going to repeat the hurtful behavior, so they know they can trust you again. Ask your child, "How do you think you’re going to change your behavior in the future to prevent this kind of thing from happening again?" Dr. Steigman recommends assessing whether the child has a healthy strategy for handling a similar situation should it arise in the future. If not, she advises helping your child to make such a plan.
"Kids also need to know they may also come up against people who will not be willing to forgive them," says McBride. "Help them to deal with this. Be sure to tell your child that they did the right thing by apologizing and that if the other person is unwilling to forgive them, that’s the other person’s issue."
“The struggle in the dynamic of ‘risk of apology without forgiveness’ is difficult for both children and adults,” Dr. Landow acknowledges.
Regardless of the other person’s reaction, it’s important to help children to forgive themselves. "It can help to realize that saying you made a mistake is also saying, ‘This is not who I am — I’m better than this’," McBride explains.
Help your child to think through what can be learned from the mistake. Remind your child that he or she has demonstrated courage and strength of character by apologizing. Commend your child for the wisdom shown in considering how to change behavior in the future.
for our children
"Let children see you apologizing when you’re wrong: to your spouse, friend, co-worker, neighbor and, yes, even to a child," says McBride.
Dr. Landow asks: “If a child’s role model is unable to appropriately express regret, remorse or even acknowledge the societal pressure of an apology, how is that child going to develop the skills necessary to have meaningful relationships that will ultimately involve apology and forgiveness?”
“An apology by a parent provides an important model for a child,” says Dr. Lifshin. “It is important for parents to understand that rather than diminishing authority, the apology helps define the type of authority they wish to establish with the child.”
"What could be more validating to a child who has been hurt by a parent’s words or actions?" Dr. Steigman asks. "When a parent can acknowledge the pain the child is in, and apologize for something they wish they had done differently, I believe this serves as an excellent role model for how to take responsibility for one’s actions and make amends, even in difficult situations." She adds that a parent who is willing to apologize to a child is a far better model than a parent who acts as though they never make a mistake.
Dr. Worthington cautions that most people don’t understand modeling. "If I want to teach children something through modeling, just doing it and having them see it doesn’t teach it and isn’t really modeling," he says. To make modeling work, discuss apologies you’ve made with your children, as age appropriate. Explain to your children how you knew you needed to make an apology to someone. Tell them how you were feeling before making the apology. Explain the steps you took in making your apology. Let your children know how you were feeling during the apology. Then discuss how the other person responded to your apology and what you did to set things right. Finally, talk about how you feel now.
Apologies as ritual
"In many religions, rituals are short language-based exchanges that have the power to change things in our life," says Dr. Hearit. "It’s the same with apologies."
McBride’s mother instilled a strong ritual into her children for making apologies. "Before we went to sleep each night, my mother would say, ‘Is there anything any of you want to say to each other?’ We knew this was the time to make apologies for anything we may have done that day that wronged one of our siblings," McBride recalls. "Mom told us the only way to protect our relationships with each other was to protect them every day."
One of the most profound human interactions, "Apologies have the power to heal," says Dr. Lazare. Learn how to make apologies. Show your children how it’s done.
"Apologies," says McBride, "are one of the most important life lessons we can give our children."
• The Center for Non-Violent Communication — a center for peaceful conflict resolution: www.cnvc.org
• Five Steps to Forgiving: The Art and Science of Forgiveness, by Everett Worthington, Ph.D. (Crown Publishers, $24)
• Hay House offers books, visualization tapes and other tools to help with forgiveness: www.hayhouse.com
• Nonviolent Communication — A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
How to Say You’re Sorry
Pre-school pride, not wanting to admit they’ve done something "bad", and feeling overwhelmed are some of the developmental reasons why young children resist saying they’re sorry. Cindy Post-Senning, co-author of The Guide to Good Manners for Kids (Harper Collins) and great-granddaughter of Emily Post, offers some practical strategies on helping your kids learn to make genuine apologies:
Start at an appropriate age. At 4 or 5, children can begin to be taught how to say they’re sorry for concrete transgressions such as breaking something or hitting another child. At age 6, they’re able to empathize — the basis for any genuine apology — and can learn to make amends for abstract things such as saying something hurtful to a friend,
"Saying sorry can’t be the be-all and end-all," says Post-Senning. If your child offers an insincere "sorry", you may want to let it go — temporarily. But revisit the situation with your child soon after, making sure to discuss his behavior and strategies for addressing it, one-on-one.
Avoid power struggles, especially in public settings. "Don’t set yourself up for a power struggle like, ‘We’re not leaving until you say you’re sorry,’" advises Post-Senning. If you see behavior your child needs to apologize for, it’s best to excuse yourselves and talk about the situation in private.
But she won’t say she’s sorry! "That may be the case," acknowledges Post-Senning, noting that in situations where your child has been wronged, parents need to listen to their child’s side of the story. Though a non-apology or insincere ‘sorry’ from another child may not seem fair, it’s an issue for that parent and child to address. Focus on explaining to your child why you believe it’s important to take the higher ground, and work through the situation with your own child.
"Daddy, why is that man walking funny?" Kids say what’s on their minds and there are occasions when it’s appropriate for a parent to step in for their child. If your child unknowingly utters something inappropriate, respond with: "I hope he didn’t offend you. This is something we’re working on." Be sure to talk about how that person might have felt — when you get home.
Set a good example. Looking at your own behavior — and apologizing for it — can make a powerful impression, says Post-Senning. "When you apologize to your child if you’ve lost your temper and didn’t mean to, she’ll understand and appreciate that you recognize that you’re not right 100 percent of the time."
— Cynthia Tavlin
Learn How to Behave
In New York City, where kids can take classes in everything from Italian to tae kwon do, it is no surprise that there’s an array of etiquette classes. City children are out in public more than other kids – at restaurants, on public transportation – and taking a class can be a fun way to instill proper behavior.
• Special Requests has afterschool etiquette classes for grades 1-12. The workshops are geared toward the different ages — everyone learns about good manners, how to answer the telephone, and how to write a thank you note. Older kids learn about dating, how to be a host or hostess and — music to a parent’s ears — how to conduct oneself in job and college interviews. Special Requests workshops are $150; (212) 431-5528 or www.specialrequests.info.
• "Social Savvy" classes with Miss Judith at The Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park, are for kids ages 8-13. The ‘ladies and gentlemen’ have a three-course meal, learning proper introductions, handshakes, and writing thank yous. The four-hour class is $195, which includes lunch or dinner. Classes are held one weekend a month. For reservations, call (917) 790-2400.
• The Plaza Hotel runs a Young Plaza Ambassadors club, with etiquette classes for kids ages 6-9. The classes are $65, $60 for members. A companion book, The Golden Rules of Etiquette at The Plaza (Fifth Avenue Press, $16.95) reinforces the lessons learned in class. There is also an advanced class for teens. www.plazaypa.com.
• Emily Post’s The Guide to Good Manners for Kids (HarperCollins, $15.99) offers a more complete etiquette guide, covering behavior at home and school, on airplanes and at concerts. The book is best for kids ages 8-12.
— Judy Antell
DEALING WITH FAMILY CONFLICT?
Family Mediation May Help
By Melanie G. Snyder
How much time do you spend dealing with conflict in your family? Whether with children, spouse, siblings, parents or extended family, conflict can be a significant source of stress and, if unresolved, can lead to a breakdown in family ties. If you’re struggling with conflicts that you’re just not sure how to resolve, family mediation may help.
What is mediation?
The international Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) defines mediation as “a voluntary and confidential process in which a neutral third-party facilitator helps people discuss difficult issues and negotiate an agreement.” The mediator’s neutrality is key.
“The most common misconception about mediation is that the mediator will tell people what they should do about their situation,” says Sue Bronson, past chair of the Family Section of ACR. Instead, the mediator’s role is to facilitate communication between the parties through a structured process, and to create an environment conducive to resolving the conflict. Mediators do not give advice or resolve the conflict for the parties.
“The family controls the outcome,” adds Amy Carron Day, attorney-mediator with practices in Manhattan and Katonah.
The mediation process
The mediation process begins with each party telling their side of the story to a neutral mediator, with all parties in the room together. “Mediation allows the emotions involved in a family issue to be raised in a constructive manner,” explains Michael Eisner, Brooklyn-based family mediator.
Most disputants come into mediation not trusting each other, observes Dr. Donald Saposnek, clinical child psychologist, child custody mediator and editor of ACR’s Family Mediation News. “In spite of the lack of initial trust, the process of mediation sets up structures that allow trust to re-build,” he says, “or, if it never existed, to build some level of trust that allows them to move forward.”
Once all parties have told their side of the situation, each party identifies their key issues. Then, the parties begin to identify possible options to address those issues — discussing what they’d like for others to be willing to do, as well as what they are willing to do themselves to help address the issues. After the issues and as many options as possible for resolution are laid out, the parties talk together about whether there are specific options to which they are willing to commit. This can become the basis for a written agreement between family members.
The mediator helps the parties to make their own decisions by facilitating this process of communication and decision-making, Bronson adds.
When mediation may help
Parties don’t need to be in extreme disagreement for mediation to work, observes Rikk Larsen, case coordinator for the Harvard Mediation Program. “It is just as effective as families struggle with complex issues that haven’t been defined as conflict yet — such as a family that never talked about money using mediation to help learn to comfortably communicate.”
Other situations where mediation can be effective include:
—family property, business or financial disputes
—family wills and estate disputes
—conflict between aging parents and their adult children over living arrangements, medical or financial matters
—parent/teen conflict over discipline, rules, and behavior
—conflict between spouses over finances, childrearing or other matters
—separation, divorce and child custody conflicts
—conflict between families and schools over special education issues for children
When is mediation not appropriate?
Mediation is not usually appropriate in situations involving domestic or child abuse, extreme imbalances of power between the parties, where either party is not rational due to drug or alcohol use, or when either party is not able to make decisions for him or herself. These situations call for the disadvantaged party to have a strong advocate (typically a therapist, case-worker or attorney) to protect his or her interests. If the parties wish to try mediation anyway, they should be sure to seek out a highly trained mediator with experience mediating in the presence of these issues.
Mediation vs. courts, lawyers, et al
In situations that have become so difficult that family members are considering lawsuits, mediation can be a better alternative for many reasons.
“No court or attorney can predict what is best for your family, nor will they take the time to come to the creative solutions the parties can come to with the help of a third party neutral to guide them through the process,” says Day.
Eisner adds, “Litigation encourages parties to fight for everything they can get — negotiation or compromise can seem like weakness.” Mediation, on the other hand, is about working together.
Finally, mediation is significantly less expensive and time-consuming than litigation.
What it takes to make it successful
“For any mediation to be successful, it is important that the parties be willing to listen to each other,” says Eisner. “They must keep an open mind about possible solutions to the issues that face them and must not be hung up on winning and losing.”
The focus of all parties must be on resolving issues. Everyone must be emotionally prepared to negotiate. Day adds, “If revenge is the primary motivation or either party is still in 100 percent denial, they simply won’t make much progress in mediation.”
“I have worked with every age, ethnicity, and economic level in mediation,” says Day. “Somehow, they can all come to helpful solutions.” Even in cases that require translators, the desire to work things out and regain family harmony seems to be a universal language.
Why it works
What is it about mediation that can make it work where other strategies may have failed? “Mediation has a forward-looking focus that avoids the mire of old issues dragging participants back down again,” says Larsen. Mediation addresses one of our most basic human needs: to be heard and respected.
Even if the family doesn’t ultimately get to a written agreement, mediation provides both immediate and long-lasting benefits to families — including better understanding of one another, better communication between family members, and better decisions about how to address conflicts. Larsen concludes: “Mediation works because it provides a forum where family members don’t have to admit fault, but can work out an agreement where each side gets something they want.” Ultimately, everyone wins with stronger family ties.
Choosing a Mediator — Basic Considerations
1. Look for a mediator accredited by the state. State accreditation indicates that the mediator has successfully completed a program of training courses, conducted a minimum number of hours of mediation and/or has passed a qualifying exam. In addition, many states require mediators to adhere to a strict code of ethics.
2. Local family courts (called “Superior Courts”) may be able to make a referral, since they often know the quality of work, competence and experience of local mediators.
3. The mediator should also be a member of a mediation association, such as the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR).
4. Ask for references from any mediator you contact. Remember, though, that due to the fact that mediation is confidential, the references are not likely to be former mediation clients.
5. Mediators conducting family mediation should have knowledge and training in family-related areas such as family dynamics and the impact of conflict, child development, domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect, finances and relevant areas of family law.
Questions to Ask a Mediator Before Engaging Their Services
Be aware that some who call themselves mediators are actually arbitrators or practice something called ‘med-arb’ — a hybrid of mediation and arbitration. Ask any mediator you contact the following questions to determine whether they practice facilitative mediation, as described in this article:
1. Who makes the final decision or crafts the final agreement on what the parties will do to address the conflict? In facilitative mediation, the parties are fully in charge of deciding the terms of any agreement.
2. Do you give legal advice during a mediation session? In facilitative mediation, mediators are not permitted to give legal advice to either of the parties.
3. Is the process confidential/private? In facilitative mediation, information shared by either party during the mediation is confidential, except in cases where child abuse, threat to harm oneself or others, illegal activity or other specific exceptional issues may be involved, in which case the mediator is required to report to local authorities.
4. Is the process completely voluntary? In facilitative mediation, either party can walk away at any time with no further obligation.
• Martindale-Hubbell offers a searchable web-based directory of mediators at www.martindale.com/xp/Martindale/Dispute_Resolution/Search_Dispute_Resolution_Directory/qual_search.xml
• The Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) offers a list of screened, advanced practitioners in family mediation at www.acrnet.org/referrals/ap-family.htm
• Mediate.com offers a “Locate a Mediator” search tool to find mediators by location and specialty at www.mediate.com/fam/index.cfm
Additional Resources for Addressing Family Conflict
• Angry Animals Board Game — a game for 4- to 12-year-olds to teach conflict resolution skills: www.activeparenting.com/acb5lic/showdetl.cfm?DID=8&Product_ID=9959
• Calming The Family Storm: Anger Management For Moms, Dads, And All The Kids, by Gary D. McKay and Steven A. Maybell (Impact Publishers Inc, $16.95)
• The Center for Non-Violent Communication — a center for peaceful conflict resolution: www.cnvc.org
• Nonviolent Communication — A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
• Raising a Thinking Child: Help Your Young Child to Resolve Everyday Conflicts and Get Along with —Others, by Myrna Shure (St. Martin's Press)