RESISTANCE TO RESILIENCE: USING APOLOGY TO UNLOCK IMPASSE
A properly formulated apology can both provide consolation and restore integrity between clients in dispute resolution. Facilitators can encourage apologies to clear the air, relieve stress and create an atmosphere of improved communication to achieve settlement. In addition to these substantial process benefits, an apology has the potential to transform the participants through neurological changes which impact the attitude of everyone at the table. The facilitator, in collaboration or mediation, has an opportunity to address barriers to communication by recognizing that particular incidents or events may be at the heart of conflict and then focusing attention, at the right time in the right degree, so that the clients can move beyond emotion. An effective apology can tap into empathy to reveal motivation and meaning, broaden perspective to open up imagination and reconsolidate negative memories to create a shared narrative for resolution. Facilitators, especially working in collaborative teams, should be familiar with the essential elements of apology and how to work with individual clients to lay the foundation for an effective apology.
The flow of information within our brains and bodies is not isolated; every person is connected with others in relationships which inform and alter the information flow because of their interaction.‘ The human mind is more than just the brain since our neurobiology depends on relationships to adapt, grow and thrive. Conflict facilitators familiar with emotional reactivity in their clients can actively orchestrate opportunities to release stress in the room by exploring the causes of fight or flight response in a particular case. While the dispute before them may be financial or legal, the long-standing emotional interactions between the clients may be the reason they have not been able to negotiate their own solutions. They come to the table with a history of working together that has broken down because emotions have hijacked their thinking brains. The facilitator should be curious as to why and when the breakdown happened. Often there is an underlying pattern of behavior between the clients which has become destructive or hurtful by a precipitating event or incident. The physical reaction of fight or flight then prevents calm access to create and evaluate solutions. This reactivity may underlie the dispute and may reappear during negotiations as impasse.
Apologies can preserve important relationships and allow us to adapt and grow from a specific event or choice. Conflict, at a minimum, arises from two people, an incident or event and the opposing stories they each tell about the significance of that event. Apologies can reveal the respective stories to broaden the perspective of both clients and allow each to extend beyond their particular story to co-create a new story about the future together. In some cases a sincere apology can even alleviate suffering, promote forgiveness and empower the participants to connect to their deepest values. An apology has the potential to transform if the clients have the capacity to consider the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?” Conflict facilitators should be familiar with the terminology, steps of effective apology and neurological systems activated in the formation, presentation and response to apology in order to use apology as an effective tool.
Terminology. Apology is central to restorative justice systems. Restorative justice seeks to maintain balance in communities for social cohesion, resilience and sustainable change in behavior to align with the values of the community members. In contrast, the justice system relying on rights, court-imposed solutions or punishments cannot access the voluntary and sincere realignment that apology can provide. This rule-based approach is ultimately enforced with power by the authority of the system which results in feelings of helplessness by participants. Instead of using the terminology of “victim” and “offender” from the retributive system of justice, restorative circles describe (i) the “Author” of an action or choice, (ii) the “Recipient” of the impact of that action or choice, and (iii) the community surrounding the Author and Recipient which has been affected by the action/choice and its consequences.2
The relationship between Author and Recipient is important to the well-being of the community, and so the community is invested in meaningful resolution. This article will use the term “Author” and “Recipient” to refocus the relationship between the clients. This shift in terminology in the facilitator’s thinking is an important step in moving beyond blame to understanding unmet needs of each client beneath the conflict and objectifying the problem. For ease of reading, this article will use the pronoun “he” as a general reference, recognizing that the roles of Author, Recipient and facilitator are not gender specific.Incident. There is an incident which is the nexus of the apology. Usually the incident has occurred because of a choice or action by the Author having either an intended or unintended consequence on the Recipient. The incident often develops significant meaning to the Recipient because it becomes symbolic of a pattern of interaction within a larger, on-going conflict. Conflict may be rooted in long-term memories of similar patterns with different authors from the Recipient’s past. The precipitating incident may be only a “tremendous triffle” to the Author or facilitator, but the act resonates deeply with the Recipient because of its connection with past memories. Whether the conflict is between the clients or internal to the Recipient, the incident causes disruption between the clients and can trigger the fight or flight response in the Recipient. The Author of the incident may well also feel like a victim and sometimes seeks to turn the tables on the Recipient by justifying the incident with prior actions of the Recipient. This reaction expresses the cognitive dissonance within the Author who always seeks to justify behavior to maintain an image of himself as a “good” person.
When the memory of the incident, or the underlying pattern it represents to the Recipient, continues to emerge during negotiations, the facilitator must make a choice of how and when to address the incident. Caucuses to hear and understand each client with curiosity and explore perspective with open-ended questions can clarify for the facilitator whether an effective apology can be given and whether it can be received. The facilitator can assist the Author in formulating a restatement of the particular incident through paraphrasing or reframing. The more specific the restatement of the incident with details of the action/choice and consequences, the more effective the apology will be.
The facilitator must remain non-judgmental in the controversy recognizing that the Author may have just as strong emotional responses to the incident or event as the Recipient. Both clients can be encouraged toward sensitivity of the other’s emotional reactivity. If a collaborative team is available, how to approach and prepare the clients for apology should be coordinated among the team members. While mental health coaches may be the most familiar with managing strong emotions, all members of the team should be prepared to respond and coordinate their interactions. The team’s plan for using the tool of apology should address the potential splitting of the team and alignment with a particular client.
The facilitator needs to be prepared to distinguish between acceptable decisions of an Author that had unintended and costly consequences (amoral) and decisions which could be characterized as errors in judgment of the Author (implicating “right” and “wrong”). This distinction may help the Author better understand the reaction of and significance to the Recipient. Working with the clients, the goal of the facilitator initially is to provide clarity in the agency of the Author of the action/choice and the incident’s impact on and consequences for the Recipient. If the clients are then willing to consider apology, the facilitator can assist both Author and Recipient in addressing each of the remaining elements.
Broadening Perspective. Most people make choices and take actions which make sense to them under the particular circumstances at the time of the incident.3 When the outcome is not as we expected, we activate complex internal mechanisms of self-justification. When we are blamed for a bad outcome, we default to defensive explanations. The story of the incident may then be reconstructed into logical explanation to suppress the Author’s emotions. The Recipient might interpret this resort to logic as defensive, coldness or calculation on the part of the Author rather than just a discomfort with strong emotion. Apologies which make excuses or justify the Author’s motivations or intentions are not well-received. Motivations may be important in unraveling misunderstanding, but insufficient to repair trust.
A sincere apology is focused in the experience of the incident by the Recipient and any outcomes suffered, real or imagined. The exercise of crafting an apology forces the Author to see the incident through the eyes of the Recipient. Whether the Author agrees with this perspective or the Recipient’s reaction is not the point. The change in understanding begins with the Author understanding that the incident had a particular meaning to the Recipient. For the facilitator this is the most significant (and most challenging) shift in the dynamic between the clients – introducing another perspective to the Author. This shift opens the possibility that the Recipient can accept that the incident was not malicious on the part of the Author.
A central neurological system involved in the broadening of perspective is empathy, the ability of a person to experience the feelings of another person. Empathy is not located in just one part of the brain, but involves specific structures in the cortex (thinking) and limbic (emotional) brains. Tom Lewis, a psychiatrist writing about empathy, compares this system to a software program that toggles between the Self program and the Other program.4 We need information about the Self to determine how we will interact with our environment. In order to evaluate the effectiveness of those strategies, our brains toggle to the Other program to anticipate the motivations and actions of Other. Empathy is not feeling sorry for another, but rather experiencing similar physical feelings to anticipate meaning in the Other’s actions. But these feelings are limited to our own experiences and we may misinterpret and impose our own perspective onto the Other.
Sometimes the Self does not have sufficient references to understand choices of the Other. There are other times that the Self program dominates due to emotional hijacks and thus may limit the ability of the Other program to provide information. In these cases we may misinterpret motivations and imbue negative intentions to the Author to cast him as a “bad person.” The goal of apology is to reset the switch in the brain in order that both Author and Recipient may realign and balance the flow of information which, during conflict, may become dominated by the Self program. When the autonomic nervous system is triggered and clients are caught in fight or flight responses, they no longer have the ability to step back and access logic of the thinking part of the brain. The facilitator’s responsibility is to create safety to calm clients and acknowledge their individual perspectives without contradiction. Gradually the facilitator can redirect them into a broader shared narrative through exploration of successful interactions between them in the past and a focus on future choices which can be mutually beneficial.
Acknowledgement of Mistake. In assuming responsibility for the action/choice in an apology, the Author must take this perspective of Other and restate how the incident was specifically experienced by the Recipient. The Author should address each consequence individually and describe his understanding of how the Recipient felt. The brain of the Author is wired to resist characterizing his own behavior as wrong or a mistake; unmet expectations interrupt the release of pleasure neurotransmitters in the Author and pleasure sensations are preferred. So this step may be difficult for the Author and require support from and practice with the facilitator.
Our brain interprets mistakes negatively so we tend to self-justify behavior and revise the stored memory of the act/choice retrospectively in order to conform to our internal template of values. Yet our brains can learn from mistakes and rewire if we can accept responsibility for the mistake. When we make ourselves vulnerable by embracing a mistake, the brain can then revise its prior models and patterns. This is the way neurological connections, and ultimately learning, are made: by failure, reconstruction, and consolidation into a new network. Accepting mistakes through an apology then allows the Author to simulate a “do-over” in his inner thoughts: “What could I have done differently?” Even if this is only done within the imagination of the Author and never voiced to the Recipient, there can be a benefit to the negotiation because new neural pathways can be formulated by the simulation.5 When shared with the Recipient, the interaction of creating possible alternate courses of action can broaden perspective and provide greater resilience for future ethical choices for both clients.
Expression of Regret. In order to meet the emotional needs of the Recipient, an effective apology also includes an expression of regret or remorse by the Author. Regret and remorse imply both an intellectual understanding of the impact the Author’s action had on the Recipient as well as an emotional investment in their on-going relationship. Again this expression must be specifically directed to the causal connection between the Author’s act/choice and the experience by the Recipient. Facilitators may coach the Author into understanding that being sorry that the Recipient reacted or felt a certain way is not sufficient. (“I’m sorry you felt that way.”) Apology must connect the Recipient’s feelings directly with the Author’s agency. (“I’m sorry that my action caused this impact on you.”) For those clients who value the continuation of a relationship in the future, remorse from the Author may well trigger similar feelings in the Recipient if effectively expressed.
Silence is another tool available to the facilitator. This quiet moment between Author and Recipient can be allowed to expand into compassion. Compassion is a specialized skill developed in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which makes us most human. Here we set intentions, plan for the future, experience empathy and kindle a desire to alleviate the suffering of others. Sympathy has a connotation of pity or “feeling sorry for” another while detaching and placing the sympathizer in a superior position to Other. The facilitator should be sensitive to this distinction. The Author may sympathize – “Sorry you felt that way,” – but in doing so distances himself from the experience of the Recipient. Buddhist traditions consider compassion, the desire to alleviate harm and suffering from another, as the complementary virtue to loving-kindness, the desire to bring about well-being and happiness in others. This may suggest that these twin impulses of compassion and loving kindness arise from similar operations in the brain. If either client can access compassion or kindness for the other through the vehicle of apology, the emotional barriers to resolution of their dispute can fall away.
Regret may be more challenging in enduring conflicts which are tied to the identity or values of the individuals. If the facilitator perceives that these differences are entrenched or may challenge the safety of the negotiation, the immediate goal may be civility and tolerance of the fundamentally different perspectives. Even if it is just the facilitator who is moved by the effort of considering the apology by the clients, that introduction of civility and compassion within the facilitator can change the dynamics of the negotiation moving forward; the resonance between clients and facilitator can impact clients vicariously.
Plan of Action. Not every apology goes so far as to propose reparations or restitution for consequences. But to create safety in continuing interactions between Author and Recipient, or even within the community, a plan of action or protocol may prevent the same mistake or choice in the future. Sometimes the Recipient needs merely acknowledgement and sometimes the Recipient may need assurance that the same pattern will not be repeated. Naming the pattern externalizes the problem and allows more detached problem-solving. Physical actions and repairs can also provide a simulated “do-over” to reinforce rewired neural connections in the Author.
Broader public values can be implemented in jointly-developed guidelines that incorporate the lessons learned from the incident, such as in medical malpractice or employment discrimination apologies. Reparations can give further meaning to the experience of the conflict between Author and Recipient by providing a broader context to learn from and implement solutions to prevent further damage from the incident. Facilitators can be extremely useful in helping the clients brainstorm and craft such a plan.
Facilitation Challenges. Sincere apologies may require support and facilitation in achieving each of these steps in apology. The Author may have difficulty in fully accepting responsibility or may be eager to express justification for the action/choice. Facilitators can assist Authors in suspending the self-justification mechanism by acknowledging that there may be a justifiable explanation but refocusing on the objective of meeting the Recipient’s needs and improving the broader negotiation. The reluctant Author will ask “what about my needs?” which the facilitator might reframe as “what are the greater needs of this relationship?” An apology is not a debate about who is right or which point of view should prevail but rather is an opportunity to reestablish relationship.
Likewise, the Recipient may want to blame the other person and focus on the personality rather than the action/choice. Even if an apology highlights a disagreement about the right or wrong of a particular choice, the facilitator must keep the focus off the personalities and on the consequences and impact for the Recipient, the externalized problem. The longer the delay between the incident and the apology, the more entrenched the Recipient can become in a victim mentality which is locked in the past instead of focused on positive change for the future. The temporal lobes of the brain only experience “now,” so that the pain of the past or the fear of the future is immediate and unrelenting for the Recipient.
The facilitator must also make a judgment call on how much time he devotes to past conduct in forging apologies instead of future possibilities of relationship. The temporal structures in the brain can flood a Recipient with past memories of anger and helplessness unrelated to this incident if the facilitator dwells in the past and fails to redirect the clients to the actual control they have over future interactions. The powerlessness to change events of the past can be replaced with active choices given to the Recipient about how he wants to move forward into a more positive future. Preparation of both clients by the facilitator by giving both of them choices: the author may choose to deliver the apology in person, in writing, or not at all, while the Recipient may choose to be open to hearing an apology, receiving a written apology or not at all. The facilitator is the representative of the community, not taking sides or judging the clients, but instead focusing attention on the contributions and incremental shifts each makes toward resolution. The facilitator can celebrate efforts by each client to rebalance the relationship through the process of apology, even if there is ultimately not an apology.
Forgiveness. Facilitation at its best is about co-creating the future. An apology can clear away the obstacles of the past so that new choices can be made. Forgiveness, according to an Oprah show, is “finally accepting that the past cannot be changed.” An apology allows Author and Recipient to experience vulnerability safely so that each client can experience the world of the other and accept that mistakes can be fertile ground for new understanding. By acknowledging remediation of past mistakes, future choices which result in new, different mistakes, can be experienced in the context of talking about, considering and learning. Conflict then becomes a learning opportunity for Author, Recipient and facilitator to practice response flexibility, problem-solving and resilience.
But to allow this possibility of forgiveness to be genuine, we also must accept the converse: the Recipient may not be willing to accept the apology and forgive. The free will not to accept an apology creates safety for the Recipient so that he can entertain the apology at all. The process of the apology offers the opportunity but not the necessity for each party to determine “who do I want to be?” For the facilitator, the process of the apology changes the dynamics of the conflict regardless of forgiveness. In other words, it may be sufficient just for the Author to experience the Recipient’s perspective even without the Recipient’s forgiveness, since the Author then has new information about himself and Other. The facilitator must let go of any particular outcome and allow the struggle and expression of the apology to be the building blocks of the next stages of the negotiation.
Community and Civil Discourse. Apology is about respect, coexistence and meaning. These are conditions essential to relationship whether as co-parents or neighbors or citizens. The community and the facilitator, as clients in apology, can acknowledge that humans are ultimately social creatures and need each other to thrive. Restorative practices such as mediation and collaboration can focus not just on settlement but also on creative problem-solving that moves beyond “my view” and “your view” to our shared experience. Restorative circle facilitation skills, which bridge time by examining feelings now, motivations then and future actions, can also be used as a facilitation exercise in conjunction with apology. These non-adversarial conversations can forestall a heart from breaking apart by allowing it to break open “into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience.”6
As co-parents, neighbors and citizens we come to accept that our individual choices are not just about us but have consequences for our children, our neighborhoods and our country. How we make those choices draws on our deepest values. Civil discourse essentially allows the community to embrace the differences among us. Making apologies, listening to each other in those exchanges, seeking empathic connections even with perspectives radically different from our own, can create the possibility of changing our minds. Our willingness as facilitators to offer a safe space “to probe, question, explore, and engage in dialogue” creates a complex, multidimensional, human view of reality.7
Apologies can help us value our differences through vulnerability and a willingness to be changed. Facilitated processes, like mediation and collaboration, provide an infrastructure for the natural biological reactions of fight or flight and the resulting anxiety in conflict to be used as energy to propel the brain toward learning and creativity. The facilitator can consciously use tools, such as apology, silence, restorative circles and reclaimed civil discourse to redirect clients away from personal animosity toward acceptance of the humanity of each other. Facilitators can establish a strong foundation to co-create an outcome that can then serve to renew relationship between clients and within the greater community.
1 Siegel, Daniel J. The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. Print.
2 Restorative Circles. Dominic Barter. Web. <http://www.restorativecircles.org>.
3 Stone, Douglas, Sheila Heen, and Bruce Patton. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin, 2010 (p. 78).
4 Lewis, M.D., Thomas B. “Empathy.” 2009. MS. University of San Francisco, San Francisco (p. 5)..
5 Shpungin, Ph.D, Elaine. “Peacemeal.” Psychology Today, 14 Jan. 2012. <http://www.psychologytoday.
6 Palmer, Parker J. Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print (pp. 14-15).
7 Id.at p. 18.