ConflictInzicht, Issue 1, February 2009
Dorothy J. Della Noce
Welcome to the premier of “Communication Insight”! No doubt, you have already noticed that this column is presented in English. Why, you might ask, is a column on communication appearing in the English language in a Dutch magazine?
English is my native language and, although I now live and work in the Netherlands, I still express myself best in English. Friends consider my budding mastery of Dutch charming. Local shopkeepers find it amusing. But my skill is certainly inadequate at this stage for me to convey meaningful observations about the communication process, which has been the subject of my research, writing and teaching for decades. Fortunately, I have chosen as my second home a country where so many residents are comfortable with the English language (and quite gracious about switching to it in a flash when they detect my American accent). So, it seems that I can trust that many readers will simply accept that what I have to say is best said in English for now, and for that I am grateful.
In this column, I will be sharing ideas about useful communication strategies for people who are involved in conflict --- whether a conflict of their own or a conflict in which they are involved as a third party (such as a mediator, manager, parent, judge, or lawyer). I will provide these communication strategies along with the research explanation for their effectiveness, so that you can draw your own insights about the use of such strategies in your own life.
Communication is an interactive process that involves both verbal and non-verbal messages, as well as context, culture, implicit knowledge, assumptions, intentions, interpretations, and effects that go far beyond the simple word or sentence. Deborah Schiffrin (1994, p. 23) calls this “discourse”: the “language above the sentence” or “language-in-use.” Discourse research examines the functions of a wide range of communication features in a wide range of languages, with the central goal of understanding how people make meaning together. A better understanding of communication at this level is essential to a better understanding of conflict. Conflict is, after all, created, enacted, sustained, resolved, and transformed through communication. And so we begin with our first topic in communication and conflict: apology.
Apology is widely acknowledged to be an effective means of resolving conflict. Apology is tied to forgiveness: in the best case, when an offending party offers an apology, the offended party offers forgiveness. Yet, not every effort to make an apology succeeds in generating forgiveness (as anyone who has ever said, or been told, “I am sorry you feel that way” already knows!). To understand why, much research focuses on the structure of a “good” apology in order to help people make better apologies. But research by Seiji Takaku (2001) suggests that it is not just the offer of an apology that matters, but also how it is received. That is, a conflict is not resolved when an apology is offered, but when the offended party accepts that apology.
Takaku’s experiments showed that an offended party was more likely to accept an apology, and extend forgiveness, when that offended party had an opportunity to reflect on his or her own “imperfect nature” (p. 506). Takaku offered this explanation. When a person is hurt by another’s actions, there is a tendency to blame those hurtful actions on the essentially “bad” character of the offender, rather than to recognize the possibility that the offender may be a fundamentally decent human being who made a poor choice in a difficult situation. (This is called the “fundamental attribution error.”) If the offended person remains in this mindset, he or she is not likely to accept an apology and forgive. However, if the offended person is able to reflect on times he or she might have committed a similar offense, and remember how difficult it was to acknowledge wrong-doing and take responsibility for it, it is more likely that the offended person will see the offense as a matter of poor choices in difficult circumstances, to accept the apology, and to offer forgiveness. Takaku suggested that this is due to “hypocrisy dissonance.” That is, the offender finds it hypocritical to hold on to the idea that the other’s misdeed makes him or her a “bad character” but to attribute his or her own past misdeeds to difficult circumstances. Hypocrisy is an uncomfortable feeling (sometimes called “dissonance”). The desire of the offended person to reduce this discomfort leads to an openness to forgiveness.
Takaku’s research offers important insights on how apologies “work.” Mutual empathy is key. While the offer of an apology may be the result of, and an expression of, the offender’s empathy with the offended party, forgiveness requires empathy from the offended to the offender. Empathy must be experienced by, and communicated by, both parties to the conflict, not simply one or the other. In other words, to be effective in resolving conflict, apology and forgiveness are best viewed as interactive processes, not simply one-sided speech events.
Takaku’s research demonstrates that an offended party has the power to shift the nature of a conflict interaction by reflecting on his or her own “imperfect nature,” developing empathy for the offender, and thus being open to the process of apology and forgiveness. Some people can undertake such reflection on their own; others might need to be prompted toward reflection. However, Takaku also urged caution: care must be taken regarding who prompts the offended party to reflect on his or her own imperfections. For example, if the offending party makes the prompt, it would likely generate resistance on the part of the offended party and actually escalate the conflict.
Takaku’s research also suggests that there could be a benefit from “outsiders” to the conflict (such as friends and family, coaches, therapists, mediators, managers, and others) helping the apology-forgiveness interaction by encouraging empathic reflection on the part of the offended party. But the risk is that, if the prompt is too harsh, directive, insistent, or clumsy, it could generate resistance rather than reflection. I would suggest, on the basis of Takaku’s research, that an appropriate communication approach for such “outsiders” in these circumstances is actually a time-honored strategy for encouraging reflection without creating resistance --- active listening (Rogers & Farson, 1987).
Rogers, C. R., & Richard E. Farson (1987). Active Listening. In R.G. Newman, M.A. Danzinger, & M. Cohen (Eds.), Communicating in Business Today. D.C. Heath & Company. Excerpt available at http://www.go-get.org/pdf/Rogers_Farson.pdf.
Schiffrin, D. (1994). Approaches to discourse. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
Takaku, S. (2001). The effects of apology and perspective taking on interpersonal forgiveness: A dissonance-attribution model of interpersonal forgiveness. The Journal of Social Psychology, 141(4), 494-508.