Why Saying ‘I Understand’ Is an Act of Arrogance

Empathy symbolIn an episode of Two and a Half Men (a high-ratings US television sitcom), the rakish cad character played by Charlie Sheen discovers that he can easily manipulate others by solemnly saying to them, “I understand.”

When he first says it, other people believe him, and begin to gush their feelings to him. Of course, his empathy is faux, and so the comedy begins.

Empathy is Cognition Plus Connection

The best way to influence (not manipulate) others is for them to feel that you understand them.

Yet the key word in the preceding sentence is not ‘understand,’ but ‘feel.’

It is one thing to understand someone; it is quite another for them to feel understood.

A seller might perfectly understand a buyer’s needs; often, in fact, even better than the buyer. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the buyer feels understood.

A consultant might perfectly understand what a client is going through, on all levels—including the deeply emotional issues facing the client. But even understanding the emotional issues of the client doesn’t guarantee the client will feel understood.

A common sales truism says, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.”

Just because it’s a truism doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  And it is, profoundly so.  The point of listening is not what you hear–it is the act of helping another feel heard.

Why Saying “I Understand” is Arrogant

On the face of it, the statement “I understand” is the perfect expression of empathy. Unlike Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen’s character in the sitcom), we usually mean it. We are sincere when we say it, so for me to suggest that ‘I understand’ is arrogant may sound insulting.

But think of it this way. The feeling of being truly understood is, by definition, something that must come from the one who is understood—not from the one doing the understanding. To assert that you understand how someone feels about their situation is to usurp their very role as object of the understanding.

It is not our right as advisors or sellers to tell someone we understand them; it is only they who can inform us that they feel understood. For us to make the claim ourselves is arrogant.

A Better Way to Express Empathy

We can never truly know another. All we can do is to guess at how we might feel in similar circumstances—and assume that they might feel likewise. The source of much tragedy—and comedy—comes from mistaken assumptions that others are exactly like us.

So, what is a better way to express empathy? How do we communicate, across the divide of individuality, a sense of connection with another? Here are a few ideas.

  • That must feel…
  • I can only imagine how that must be…
  • I suppose if I were you I’d feel…
  • Is that (difficult, easy, complicated…) for you?
  • I think I might have a glimmer of what that means for you…

The particular words don’t matter as much as a combination of sincerity and a respect for the ineffable separateness of the other person.

Ironically, the way to convey connection is to acknowledge the impossibility of fully achieving it.

The Power of I’m Sorry: the Four R’s of a Trustworthy Apology

Do you remember the last time you felt like you deserved an apology but didn’t get one?  Maybe…

  • The waiter forgot about your table
  • They shipped you the wrong product
  • Your significant other embarrassed you in a group setting

Fill in your own blank.   What impact did that have on your level of trust?

As sure as death and taxes, we will mess up.  How we respond, regardless of fault, can have a monumental effect on our relationships, yet apologizing is rarely discussed in business development circles.  

I recall an audience member asking a sales trainer, “What do we do when we make a mistake”?  The trainer responded, “Be careful about apologizing.   If you admit to the mistake, you could have legal liabilities”.  While technically correct, that advice somehow didn’t feel right to me.

Shifts in thinking on this topic appear hopeful.  Even state governments, hospitals and insurance companies have abandoned legal posturing in favor of an apology approach.  “I’m sorry” legislation has been approved in 29 states and is gaining momentum.  To reduce the risk of litigation, New Jersey recently started the Sorry Works! Coalition.

Gaffes, slip-ups, and blunders present a fork in the road to relationship depth.  The proper apology, even in the most egregious circumstances, has the ability to strengthen relationships.   Even seemingly insignificant faux pas like arriving late for a meeting, mispronouncing someone’s name, or failing to include someone, present a moment of truth to building trust. 

We’re a “fix it” society.   Somehow, we convince ourselves that if we just correct the problem – without an apology – we’re back to our original balance in the trust bank account.  That’s a myth. 

So how do we build a worthy apology?

Experts like Aaron Lazare and Nick Smith, in their book On Apology, point to four essential parts of the apology, and we can remember them as the 4 R’s: Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse, and Reparation.

1.    Recognize – First, the offender must show they recognize their misbehavior by restating the offense as objectively and specifically as possible.   Repeating what happened and why will show that the offender understands not only where and how they went wrong, but why the offended is hurt.  Be direct, i.e., "I apologize for whatever I did to hurt you" won’t cut it!

2.    Responsibility – Second, the offender must accept responsibility for the action that caused offense.   No excuses here!  He can’t blame the beer or the bad mood.   The apology is all about THEM and how they feel.   It doesn’t matter if the actions were intentional or not, the end result is the same.

3.    Remorse – Third, the apology must show, sincerely, remorse for the misbehavior. Sincerity can’t be faked: we know it when we hear it.  We’ve all heard non-apology apologies.   Include a statement of apology along with a promise not to repeat the behavior.  Remember Don Imus (see  Imussed Up: Anatomy of a Failed Apology)?

4.    Reparation -The fourth essential component may be the trickiest: reparation. The offender has to give something back, atone in some way for his offense. This is easily said, but hard to do. How, indeed, do we mend a broken heart?

“The apology represents a common frailty –we are all human, we all make mistakes, perhaps even hurt someone, intentionally or not, then face the dilemma of where to go from there?” states Susan Morrison Hebble.  “For starters, the offender needs to listen, openly and earnestly.  They need to hear what the person has to say; let them talk; let them suggest what might be done to restore harmony to the relationship”. 

As Martha Beck writes, "The knowledge that one is heard and valued has incredible healing power; it can mend even seemingly irreparable wounds."

Here’s a hard truth: we must first admit that our own pride poses the biggest obstacle to apologizing.   I would propose, then, that the apology requires us to shift our focus from ourselves–our own discomfort, our own embarrassment, our own sense of guilt–to the person or people we’ve offended–his hurt, his sense of betrayal.   It requires us to act selflessly rather than selfishly. 

It is a daunting task, one that forces us to look at ourselves, at our own flaws, and then look beyond them to the person we’ve hurt.  But anyone who has offered up a real, solid, true apology will attest that in doing so they released themselves from the very pain, discomfort, and shame they’d been avoiding all along!

The 4 R’s aren’t rocket science, yet like most risk – reward propositions, they take practice.

Who do you need to apologize to? 

I Screwed Up

Thanks go to President Obama for timing his first major Presidential misstep to coincide with my delivery of a “Being a Trusted Advisor” workshop.

In class, we had been talking about human nature and the gravitational pull to avoid admitting culpability and generally looking bad when—voila—there appeared the perfect teaching point on the front page of the New York Times.

Whatever your politics, there are two key lessons to be derived from the “I screwed up” message that President Obama delivered on the heels of Tom Daschle’s withdrawal from consideration as the next secretary of Health and Human Services:

1.  Take full responsibility. He pointed his own finger at himself. He didn’t say “I regret the unfortunate circumstances and misinformation that led to the selection of Mr. Daschle.” He didn’t hitch his wagon to Daschle’s admission of his own mistake. No, Obama said, “I screwed up.”

2.  Keep it simple. He used plain talk. Three simple words. I told workshop participants to use no more than ten words when there’s a hard truth to be told. Obama came in seven under.

Telling the truth when the truth makes you look good (as in, “Mr. Client, I have 20 years of experience solving the kinds of problems you are facing right now”) increases your credibility by demonstrating your expertise.

Telling the truth when the truth makes you look bad (as in, “I screwed up”) is a trust trifecta: your honesty boosts your credibility, your humanity creates intimacy, and your willingness to subordinate your own ego lowers your self-orientation. 

It’s another part of the trust paradox: doing what makes you look bad (telling the truth) makes you look good.  As long as you really mean it.


The Fallacy of Good Intentions

Have you ever messed up? Messed up badly enough that you feel awful about it, can’t wait to apologize, to try and make it better? And to have others forgive you?

And have you included in your apology/explanation words like, “I really didn’t mean for it to come out that way, it’s really ironic because I didn’t mean for that to happen, I never meant any harm, my intentions were good, I didn’t mean to do anything wrong, I’m really sorry if I hurt anyone because I didn’t intend to, I feel bad because I never meant to, I apologize to anyone who might have been hurt because I didn’t mean to, etc.”

Let me guess: that part didn’t work out so well, did it? And it still feels so unfair, doesn’t it? After all—my intentions were good; why can’t they see I meant well and stop saying and thinking all those bad things about me?

Here’s why. Intentions matter greatly in assessing initial trust. We judge whether another’s words and deeds are aimed at their own self-aggrandizement, or whether they’re intended to help us. A sense that another’s intentions are good can overcome things like credentials and price.

But if things go wrong, intentions do not get you a pass. In fact, they can make it worse. Because when we trust someone and it bombs, we assume only bad things.

Perhaps we conclude you lied about your intentions—which means you took advantage of us. Or we decide it means you turned out to be incompetent—which means you didn’t even know your own weaknesses. Which means your good intentions were either lies or irresponsibly misleading.

Worst of all, however, is continuing to protest that your intentions were good. Because if they’re lies or worthless, and you keep insisting on them, it means you are incapable of learning, and of focusing outside yourself. Why else would you keep talking about it?

When you’ve messed up, let yourself feel the pain, or disgust, or regret, or whatever you feel. Then own up to it to yourself. Your intentions no longer matter. They turned out to be irrelevant. The other person now has plenty of reasons to mistrust you. Don’t make it worse by forcing your failed intentions in the other’s face. They. Do. Not. Care.

After a while, say something like:

Look, I really messed up on this. I realize I did X, and Y, and maybe even Z, and put you at risk for Q. I’m not even fully sure why I did this, but I know I did it, and I’m working on figuring out why. I want to make it better, if you’ll let me. This was my responsibility and my error. And I apologize to you for it; I am sorry I did it.

Period. Let it be. Resist the temptation to sneak a little bit of “I-didn’t-mean-it” in there. If asked “how could you do that, were you trying to do that?” you can simply say, “No, I did not mean to do that,” and leave it at that. Only if someone persists on wanting to know your mental state should you go past it. And even then, don’t let it be an excuse, just an explanation, and keep your answers real short.

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. And how often have you really intended to do something messed up anyway?

Let it go. Take ownership. Own it. Grow up.

Now Pitching For Watergate: Roger Clemens

It didn’t start with Watergate—and it sure didn’t end with it.

Still, the1972 failed Republican burglary of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington still best embodies an eternal truth:

The cover-up is worse than the crime.

How many reiterations of that tragi-comedy have we seen recently?

-President Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal;
-Dan Rather and the forged memos regarding George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service;
-Martha Stewart and the sell order with her broker;
-Senator Craig and the Minneapolis airport;
-Senator Allen and the macaca brouhaha;
-Congressman Mark Foley
-Pastor Ted Haggard

Now it’s Roger Clemens.

Bill Dwyre, columnist for the LA Times , gets it just right in his Roger Clemens Gets Some Unsolicited Tough Advice.

Dwyre is one good writer. In a fine imitation of another Clemens (Samuel) channeling Huck Finn, he offers Roger Clemens his best advice on how to get out of this fix, based on all the slick huckstering he’s seen as a reporter. Some excerpts:

Let’s pretend we have gone to the dark side and our job is to tell our client, Clemens, how to get himself out of the fine fix he’s in…
You get a big room in a big hotel near a big airport and call a news conference.

You walk in with George Mitchell, sit down and start by saying how honored you are that a man of his stature is there; that you are flattered to be sitting next to somebody who has done things such as negotiating successful treaties in Northern Ireland.

Then you say you are sorry, that you won’t be able to say that enough to properly express your depth of feeling. You explain that you are a proud man who is also almost psychotically competitive. You say that you really have no idea if the steroids and HGH helped all that much, that it could be that what you accomplished in baseball might have been accomplished anyway.

But the thought of other players having an edge overwhelmed your better judgment and sent you on your way. Then, one denial led to another and before you knew it, you didn’t know how to turn back.

You don’t expect fans’ forgiveness, you just hope for a glimmer of understanding. You expect some of your personal pitching records to carry an asterisk wherever they appear, and you ask that your name not even be listed on any Hall of Fame ballot, because that might take votes away from a player more deserving.

[Your remaining years’] salary will go to two causes. The first will be used by Major League Baseball for costly blood tests of all players for HGH, done randomly, and for continued research into affordable HGH tests. The second will be a foundation that spends all its efforts getting high school athletes to understand the evils of performance-enhancing drugs.

You apologize to your wife for involving her in this and you describe how you sat your kids down and looked them in the eye.

Next, you do the hardest thing. You apologize to Brian McNamee.

Finally, you let Mitchell have the last word. Expect appropriate, articulate and scholarly.

Then go home, turn on the TV and watch how fast the worm will turn. Americans want to forgive you, to love you again, and the media that battles now for every stray eye and ear will quickly tune in to that and lead your reversal of fortune.

You will always be damaged goods, but a scar is infinitely better than the current stake you have protruding from your heart.

Your window of time is closing fast. Get rid of those two legal lumps you hired, Frick and Frack. Sit down, take a long look in the mirror. Then do it.

Clemens could probably pass a lie detector test; no one is more convinced by his bluster than he himself is.

Dwyer is giving him fabulous advice. And I’ll wager 10:1 Clemens won’t take it.

Is this an athletic tragedy? Or another pathetic, almost-comedy?

Apologies, Forgiving and Forgiveness

For some reason, I just ran across a September, 2004, article by Martha Beck titled “Always Apologize, Always Explain,” in Oprah Magazine.

It’s still a good read.  Part of what makes it powerful is a list of what is contained in a good apology (itself from Aaron Lazare, the man who—literally—wrote the book on Apology)

1. Full acknowledgement of the offense
2. An explanation
3. Genuine expresssion of remorse
4. Reparations for damage

It’s a fine list (and has prompted me to finally buy Lazare’s book). 

But what I want to focus on is Beck’s own additional thought:

The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive—or refuse to forgive—on his own terms. That is his right.

Quite right.

It’s instructive that the ninth step of the Twelve Step program literature (you know, the one that pops up in Seinfeld and other sitcoms—the one about making amends), also doesn’t allude to forgiveness. In fact, none of the 12 steps do.

I think this is because Beck, and the 12-Step program, recognize that life is a messy business. To forgive, one has to have a very clean heart in the first place.  And we—I’ll be clean here and just say I—rarely do.

If I’m in a rush to forgive people, I most likely am still judging them for some harm they did to me.  If I’m consternated about being forgiven, well, that’s all about me; and apologies don’t come from a good place if they’re all about me.

Apologies should not be tainted by forgiving, or by seeking forgiveness.  Those have their place, but it’s elsewhere. 

A good apology tries to set aright something that you set awry by impinging on another’s will.  It’s only appropriate that the apology itself refrain from further imposition of will. Hence the separation from forgiving or forgiveness.

Apologizing is fundamentally about taking full responsibility for your own role—no more, no less—in what goes on.  Fully owning your words, your actions, your life helps everything fall into place.  Blame is gone.  Wishing is gone.  Whining and tweaking and sliming and spinning are all gone when you take responsibility for your own role—no more, no less—in what goes on.  As Phil McGee says, blame is captivity, and responsibility is freedom.

In that vein, I want to apologize to (he knows who he is) for what happened back in (he knows when it was).  It was my doing—he knows that, and I want to say to him he was right.   And I’m sorry.