January 22, 2012

Computer programs to assist people in expressing apology and getting to forgiveness

Guest post by Ben Furman 

In the US, medical doctors have been advised for years by lawyers not apologize if patients complained about them. An apology, the lawyers used to explain, indicates admission of culpability and acts as invitation for a malpractice lawsuit. Massachusetts was the first State to adopt what is called an apology law in the mid 80s. It is a law that stipulates that an apology made by a medical practitioner to a patient may not be used against the practitioner in the court of law. Apology laws, which give legal permission for doctors to apologise to patients for their mistakes, have since been passed in most States in USA. It has been estimated that such laws have brought huge savings to the medical establishment through reducing the number of malpractice suits, increasing the number of resolved cases and decreasing the amount of moneys paid in compensation.

Apology is strong medicine. It impacts human relationships and contributes to psychological well being of both the victim and the perpetrator. It restores harmony by suspending anger and resentment. The positive psychology movement has convinced most of us that forgiveness is not only beneficial for resolving conflicts but actually an essential ingredient of human happiness.

Do we as therapists and coaches take full advantage of this knowledge? Do you encourage your clients to apologise for having hurt someone else's feelings with their words or actions? And when your client is the victim of someone else's wrongdoing, do you coach them in the art of forgiveness? Apology and forgiveness may not occupy a central position in solution-focused literature but could it add to our bag of tricks?
Many years ago I developed with my colleague Tapani Ahola a program for schools to deal with the wrongdoings of pupils. We named the program "steps of responsibility" and it was intended to offer schools an alternative to the usual approach: punishing children. The steps of responsibility program explains that taking responsibility is a six step process starting from:
  1. talking about what happened, 
  2. understanding the consequences of what one did, 
  3. apologising, 
  4. repairing the harm, 
  5. promising not to do anything like that again and finally, 
  6. making a contribution that prevents other kids from doing similar things. 
The steps of website was published by the National Education Board and has since been translated to English, Swedish and German. We, of course, hoped that steps of responsibility would become a popular approach all over the world but in reality now, some 15 years later, it is not widely known and only actively used by a limited number schools.

More recently, together with Lorenn Walker, a former lawyer from Hawaii who today prefers to call herself a health educator, we set out to create a set of computer programs to assist people in expressing apology and getting to forgiveness. These programs are now located at www.apologyletter.org. The website hosts four programs, all free of charge to use by anyone interested in apology and forgiveness, either personally or as part of their work. The feedback from users has been remarkably positive. For example, one user wrote: "I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the apology letter format you provided. I found it to be extremely powerful in moving toward closure with respect to a still painful 20-year hurt." Another person wrote:
"Recently, I had a falling out with a friend of mine who has made many critical and rude comments to me belittling decisions that I have made in my life (which in fact have all turned out positive and healthy for me). I felt that her criticism was unfounded and finally decided to address the issue with her. She absolutely refused to apologize which to me turned out to be more hurtful than her original rude comments. The forgiveness program eased much of the tension I was feeling towards her by allowing me to imagine that she was finally ready to admit fault, apologize and reconcile with me. Just by imagining that, I am now more ready to forgive her (even though she has not yet in any way indicated that she's ready to apologize). When we finally do talk about our friendship again, I thank that I will be more prepared to follow the principles of restorative justice instead of wallowing in my anger over her refusal to apologize. I can't believe that no-one has created anyting like this before. It's incredible. Please continue your research in this area; and thank you again."
We would be curious to know what solution-focused practicioners think of this initiative of building a bridge between solution-focused therapy/coaching on the one hand, and restorative justice on the other.

References

  • Does Sorry Work? The Impact of Apology Laws on Medical Malpractice Benjamin Ho and Elaine Liu. Johnson School Research Paper Series #04-‐2011. www.apologyletter.org

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