Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Please Just Say Sorry So We Can Move On

How to stand corrected and stop digging when you're in a hole
Jeremy Sherman
This post is a response to Metastability: A Necessity For Happiness and Evolution by Dr. Jeremy E. Sherman

A lot of psychology is too complex and messy to be managed by simple recipes, so when I find an exception, a truly reliable recipe, I use and promote it. 

For example, I tell almost every class I teach about mirroring introducing, it by saying “here’s a trick that over the course of my life has saved me thousands of dollars and months of grief.”

Mirroring is a simple and reliable recipe:  In the thick of an argument, switch roles and become your opponent’s lawyer without necessarily agreeing with his position. 

Just pause and say, “before we continue, let me makes sure I understand what you’re saying. Correct me if I’m wrong but you’re arguing XY and Z.  Did I hear you correctly?” Mirroring almost always de-escalates the argument.

There’s another recipe I’ve come to rely on, a face-saving, self-dignifying trick that pretty much always works. It’s a lot like mirroring actually, a conflict de-escalator.

The trick is this:  I say sorry as soon as I see a way I might have done something wrong, a swift, clean, specific and thorough sorry with a pledge to do better.

Not because I’m humble—quite the opposite--because I’ve got my pride and I’ve never found a more efficient way to protect it.

I often say “I stand corrected,” which I like because it admits my mistake while maintaining my standing stature, reminding me that to admit a mistake is not to topple my entire being. 

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Mirroring wouldn’t come naturally to many of us. It’s something that has to be taught.  But saying a simple and complete sorry is something I would think we’d stumble on naturally and so wouldn’t need to be taught.  It works so reliably I’m surprised more people don’t employ it.

I suppose there are alternatives to saying a swift sorry that come more naturally.  When our pride is under attack I can see why we’d offer half-hearted begrudging or sarcastic sorries that let our opponents know we’re feeling put upon and leave them wondering whether the issue is resolved. Or we say iffy sorries like “sorry if you’re frustrated” or “sorry that you’re frustrated,” apologizing without taking any responsibility.

These begrudging apologies rarely work. They make us seem miserly, defensive, prickly and prideful. The longer you half-heartedly apologize the more you pay in the end when you finally concede or when you lose your opponent’s respect and company.

Like they say, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Maybe swifter sorries would come easier if they didn't feel thoroughly damning to us, if instead of assuming every correction fells you, you could stand tall while admitting you were wrong. 

Maybe swift sorries are hard, if you were raised by wolves who pounced on you at the least sign of weakness, teaching you that a thorough apology is risky (See Infallibility Contests). But among most adults, clean and thorough apologies work much more reliably than the alternatives.

I’ve been writing lately about sources of true resilience.  My last article, for example was about how learning and play are possible only in situations in which “it’s all good” in the limited sense that the possible outcomes are all acceptable to us, situations in which we’re trying to do well, but if we don’t, we’re convinced in our guts we’ll be OK too.

Really convinced:  I don’t think we can pep talk, generalize, philosophize or spiritualize ourselves into feeling that we’ll be OK. There have been lots of attempts at that kind of thing, blandishments about Buddhist acceptance of everything, commitments to carte-blanche affirmation therapy, or unrealistic mantras like “don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff.” 

But I do think that we can optimize our resilience by visiting worst-case scenarios and devising plans to be OK if they materialize, asking “what’s the worst that can happen?” not as a rhetorical question, but a real one, visualizing not just success but failure and how you would maximize your wellbeing in the case of it. Elsewhere I’ve called it pre-grieving.

One side benefit of this “visualizing-failure” practice is that sorries come easier.  If the first time you face the possibility of failure is when it materializes or someone accuses you of it, you’re likely to freak out, lock up, and get defensive.  If you’ve pre-grieved and made plans for the possibility of failure before, you can both evaluate the negative feedback more neutrally and you can say a cleaner and swifter “sorry,” if you decide you owe it. 

Many of us worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.  We’re superstitious that if we visualize failure, we’ll bring it on.  Of course, if you only visualize failure you might bring it on, but if you visualize the range of outcomes from success to failure and find the particular ways to maximize success across the range of outcomes, my guess is that it mostly limbers you up. 

And, of course, there are some circumstances in which it’s positively reckless to ignore the risk of failure. If all negative prophecies were self-fulfilling we’d never practice emergency preparedness for fear that we’ll bring on the emergencies.

Humans are notoriously bad at emergency preparedness.  From earthquake preparedness to estate planning, to even just imagining that we might make mistakes, we don’t like thinking about negative outcomes. 

Some of us are living too close to the edge to afford much looking at further disappointment. Some of us are superstitious that if we did visit negative outcomes, the Gods will curse us self-fulfillingly. Some of us are safe enough that we round up to thinking we’re charmed and blessed and can do no wrong.

I’m suggesting that many of us are missing opportunities to learn, to maintain our dignity and to bring peace of mind to those around us when we cower in the comfort zone of self-affirmation, startled into tediously robotic self-defense when someone pops his or her head in to say “I think you made a mistake.”

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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