You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.  But you can pick how you feel about family members. One issue that can come up is past slights or misunderstandings that have festered into full blown grudges. One of the fuels feeding the grudge fire may be the lack of an apology or an apology that wasn’t deemed sufficient.  How much is an apology worth?

This is the topic of a Psychology Today article written by Art Markman, PhD. He discusses a paper published in the 2011 issue of Psychological Science.  It looked at people’s beliefs about apologies and their actual reaction to apologies in a simple situation.

The study involved participants in a trust game with another player (who actually worked with the researchers). Participants were given money (say $10) and were told that if they give the money to their partner, it will be tripled (turning it into $30).  The partner can share as much of it back as he or she wants.  Most people think a $15 dollar return on the original $10 to their partner would be fair.

In these studies, 90% of the participants gave $10 to their partner, but only got $5 in return. Half the participants were asked to imagine how they would feel if the partner apologized for being unfair, the other half actually received an apology and were asked how they felt.

  • Those who received no apology, only imagined getting one, said they would feel much better than those who actually received an apology, and
  • A follow up study showed those receiving apologies would trust their partner less in the future, compared to how much they thought they would trust them, if just getting an imaginary apology.

Why does this happen?, Markman asks.

  • When someone violates your trust and fails to apologize, you feel bad because of the original violation and the lack of an apology,
  • If you focus on getting the apology, you tend to overestimate the role it’s playing in your negative feelings, and
  • When you get the apology, you still have the violation of trust, and it feels bad even if you get that apology.

We have to understand that when someone violates our trust, an apology won’t make all the hurt go away.  There are lessons to be learned for both the transgressors and the transgressed.

For those whose trust has been violated, there are two options:

  • Nurse the grudge, or
  • Communicate with the person who violated your trust.  Creating a trusting relationship with someone after a violation is hard work. Whether it’s worth the effort is up to you.

For those who broke the trust, if you truly want to restore the relationship, an apology probably won’t be enough.  Actions will probably also need to be taken to show that the apology is genuine and you’re willing to make the effort to restore the relationship.

I mediate many cases that involve a breach of trust.  In those cases, whether it be employment, malpractice or abuse, there is often no lack of breached trust (real or imagined) involved.  Though a sincere apology can be a step towards restoring relationships (see prior blog), it will also take time and actions.  Often the apology may be tainted because it feels as if it is disingenuous.  In those circumstances,  parties seek something more than just an apology.  These things might include items such as fixing a problem, further education, commitment to future actions, or other such actions that engender trust.  Each situation must be judged on its own accord.

In the end, an apology is important, but it is not the only thing that can help to create a resolution of a conflict.