Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Power of an Apology: A Teacher's Object Lesson
When you apologize, you are saying that you share values with the offended party regarding appropriate behavior towards each other. You are saying that you regret that you didn't conduct yourself according to those values - whether intentionally or unintentionally - and from this point on you'll try harder to live up to your shared standards of behavior.
Of course, you apology must not be faked. A hollow apology, certainly, is worse than none at all. By definition, an apology is a sincere commitment to positive change, not a convenient device to avoid facing the music. And when business people routinely say "Sorry I can't take your call", or "Sorry I kept you waiting", does anyone believe they mean it?
In a book called Healing Words: The Power of Apology in Medicine, Michael Woods, MD, bemoans the fact that the words "I'm sorry!" don't seem to exist in the average doctor's vocabulary, at least when talking to patients. The author advises his colleagues to put into practice his "four R's of apology", which will help to increase patient satisfaction and decrease the likelihood of malpractice lawsuits. (I would hope he sees the latter reason as an added benefit, not the main purpose!)
Even if formulated with doctor's in mind, these four R's are certainly worthy of study by anybody:
- Recognition - knowing when an apology is in order. Read the feelings of the patient and family: Fear, disappointment, or anger?
- Regret - responding empathetically. Tell the patient you're sorry for what he's going through. Acknowledge his fear, disappoint, or anger. Remember: an expression of regret is not an admission of guilt or fault.
- Responsibility - owning up to what's happened. Be accountable for the problem, even if it was unforeseeable. Disclose and explain details that led to the outcome.
- Remedy - making it right. Explain to the patient what's being done to correct the problem. Let the patient know you will not to abandon him.
I don't know whether it's still so common today, but then a traditional form of punishment for a student who did something unacceptable was to order to him to write a sentence over and over again a number of times: "I will not talk to my friends in class," "I will not throw projectiles," or whatever. Depending on the severity of the transgression, such sentences (pun not intended!) were handed down as an order to write 50, 100, or at a maximum, 500 or so lines.
This enterprising educator, however, would command the culprit to write the assigned sentence seven or eight thousand times!
On the other hand, there was a way out - a very easy way from one perspective, an unpleasant one from another. Any pupil who would come after class and beg forgiveness, would have his punishment waived.
Only long afterwards did the writer realize his teacher's motive. It wasn't sore wrists that he wanted. On the contrary, the excessive number of lines was designed to discourage the offenders from actually carrying out the sentence.
What he wanted his young charges to understand was that they should apologize and ask forgiveness. Only if the assigned task was especially daunting would they swallow their pride and come begging.
What better lesson could any teacher give to impressionable young people in the process of forming habits that will last a lifetime.
Surely, this is education at its best!