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19. Arguments and Apologies

I have found you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding.

—Samuel Johnson

In arguments, as in sports and life, whether you win or lose depends a lot on how you play the game. One of the best ways to make your points is to avoid blaming the other and take responsibility for your own feelings.

Instead of, "YOU did such and so," try saying, "What happened made me feel disappointed, hurt, sad, lost, or betrayed because...." I statements, as they are called, keep the responsibility for your feelings with you. Your worthy opponent, instead of feeling blamed and becoming defensive, can usually at least sympathize with your feelings. He or she then has the option of mirroring back what he has heard; expressing understanding, sadness, or regret; and offering to do something to help you feel better if she or he cares to. If not, you still have a clear understanding of how you feel and perhaps how he or she feels about you.

If you are in an argument where blame is being leveled at you, justifiably or not, try this in reverse by stating the feelings that would seem appropriate to the situation. For example, "That must have made you feel disappointed, hurt, sad, lost, or betrayed." If you identify the correct feeling, it's like throwing a life raft to a drowning soul. Suddenly, she is heard, as if by magic, and she will elaborate and expound on the feelings you've correctly identified. Even if you guess wrong, you've taken the argument to a feeling level and your contrarian will almost always come back with the correct feeling. Now you have the chance to acknowledge the feeling and express sadness and regret and offer to do something to help her feel better if you care to.

Sometimes, the best question to ask is, "What can I do to make you feel more cared for, understood, trusted, accomplished, successful, and respected?" By involving your opponent in the solution, you guarantee that you've gone to the heart of the matter and will find out what to do next if you care and can.

This technique of active listening deepens surface conversation, too. By identifying the feelings that come up in any situation, people seem to feel not only heard but understood as well.

Fighting fair means limiting the argument to the issue at hand and not condemning the other person's character or being. Follow the same principle that good parents do with children: I don't like how you are behaving but I value, honor, respect, and love you.

Just as in other communications, arguments and avoiding them take planning and know-how. A senior citizen I know avoids getting baited into arguments when her grown children call for advice, money, and other things children call on their parents for. "I don't always agree with how they are running their lives," she says, "but I've schooled myself in letting their problems remain their problems with an, 'of course that's between you and him.' Then, I graciously say goodbye and quickly get off the phone." After some knock-down drag-out fights that upset her more than anyone, she began to keep notes at her desk of what she calls her "noncommittal phrases." "I just listen and then use one of these to get off the phone. It keeps me from having to defend myself or anyone else and getting pulled into their grievances and accusations."

Another good exercise is to offer a simple statement. Paraphrase what you've said without judging or condemning. "What I understood you to say is..." you haven't aligned or opposed, you just said in other words so the other person knows they've been heard not just listened to. The dynamic in most arguments is that neither party is listening. Each is only awaiting his or her turn to argue and is not paying any attention to the other. As soon as I know I've been heard, it either satisfies me or cuts the ground out from under me.

Apology

Confession of our faults is the next thing to innocence.

—Publilius Syrus

In Chapter 7, notice that of all the distinguishing characteristics of different cultures, the one noted for the United States is acknowledging wrongdoing and apologizing. America's Puritan heritage is nowhere more evident than in its reverence for truth. It is locked in there with justice and the American way. Falling on your sword is revered here as in no other country or culture.

The best antidote for regret was shared by the well-known journalist Jim G. Bellows, who is perhaps the most prolific editor in the history of journalism. With assignments that included the Atlanta Journal, Detroit Free Press, Miami News, New York Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Tonight, ABC News, and TV Guide, Jim Bellows follows the guiding principle of "begin at once and do the best you can."

Missteps

It is a humbling experience for the person fortunate enough to get the call from a friend who wishes to make amends as a requirement in the celebrated 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. There is no dependence on whether you accept or not. The call is simply made to right a wrong or correct a mistake, which southern California holistic therapist Dr. Sue Colin terms a misstep.

In The One Minute Apology (William Morrow, 2003), authors Margret McBride and Ken Blanchard recommend realizing and admitting your mistakes as a first step. "Be completely honest with yourself and take responsibility for your mistake before you apologize," they suggest. "At the core of most problems is a truth you don't want to face. Problems spin out of control the minute you avoid dealing with them.

"Apology begins with surrender and ends with integrity. Honesty is telling the truth, integrity is living the truth, consistently."

Once you've acknowledged your wrongdoing, you must correct the wrong and make amends. Be genuinely sincere about earning (winning) back love and trust. It can be a very creative process. Some of my best relationships have begun with a mistake or misstep, because it cracked the shells of our understanding.

In the 1953 production of Time and Time Again, James Hilton wrote, "If you forgive people enough you belong to them, and they to you, whether either person likes it or not — squatter's right of the heart."

Make apologies brief and sincere. Recap what you did. How it hurt the other person or situation. Acknowledge how you feel about it.

Accept apologies graciously by briefly mentioning the impact of the other's actions and how you felt, and then offer to move on. If you can't, then at least acknowledge your appreciation for the courage it takes to apologize.

Correct something as soon as you realize it's been misconstrued or misunderstood. Whose responsibility is a misunderstanding? The first person who becomes aware of it.

In the media, one of the most important aspects of apology is timing. It's not only what did you know and when did you know it, but what did you say and when did you say it. Here, too, McBride and Blanchard's caution applies, "The longer you wait, the more the weakness will be seen as wickedness."

Lead from a position that responsibility has not yet been determined, unless it has, then move directly to ways in which your company is reacting in a respectable manner. Don't meet the media and deny it was you if it was. (You should know!)

The minute you know you are wrong, begin at once to do what's right. If your company was in part responsible, show as well as tell that specific actions have now been taken to ensure that the situation will not — cannot — be repeated.

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