“Well, if he doesn’t trust me that’s his problem, isn’t it? I’m trustworthy. Ask anyone around here and they’ll tell you. He’s just being overly sensitive. I don’t need to apologize to him. In fact, he should apologize to me for calling me a liar.”
Ever hear something like that? In a previous post I talked about how we can repair trust with someone when we’ve done something to break it. It requires acknowledging and apologizing. But we humans frequently fail to get to that point. Instead we try to justify our behavior, often by making the other person wrong. And our justifying precludes any possibility of repairing the trust.
Don’t believe me? Read Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The authors tell it the way it is, with plenty of evidence to back them up. We are prone to justifying our thoughts and actions rather than questioning them, And we stick to our justifications even in the face of clear evidence what we did was hurtful, foolish, or just plain wrong.
The culprit here is cognitive dissonance. It’s a term psychologists use to describe the unpleasant sensation we get when we’re confronted with two beliefs or opinions that are inconsistent with each other. The theory was originally developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s. It says that human beings are driven to make sense, order and meaning in our lives, and that information which challenges the way we’ve made that meaning produces physical discomfort. When this happens we are driven to resolve the dissonance tout suite.
Over 3,000 experiments have looked at different aspects of the theory. Most recently neuroscientists have identified the areas of the brain involved in cognitive dissonance, demonstrating the mechanism is hard wired. But – and here is the important part – we don’t have to give in to our immediate desire to justify. It is wired in, but so is the capacity to stop ourselves. We can take an honest look at the validity of contradictory information. We can even modify our beliefs. But we have to be willing to bear a little dissonance.
You want to be seen as a completely trustworthy person, and you believe you are. Yet here is someone telling you she doesn’t trust you, which blows your story. Yikes! Your first reaction is to stick to you’re your story and ignore this evidence that seems to contradict it. If you can’t make it go away by ignoring it, maybe you can discount it, call it a misunderstanding. Another strategy: make her wrong – “she’s over reacting” or “she’s being defensive”. Ahhh, that nasty, uncomfortable feeling’s gone now. Everything’s ok.
Except it isn’t, because she still doesn’t trust you. In fact, her distrust has grown since, as she sees it, you ignored her concern and made her wrong. As for you, you’ve not got a story that she overreacts and is defensive and you’ll be on the lookout for evidence to support it. Where does this leave you two? At war, to put it bluntly.
A better approach is to listen to her story with an open mind and honestly look at the situation from her perspective. From her perspective, remember, not your idea of what her perspective should be. Then, if appropriate, you can acknowledge your actions and apologize for any damage this has caused her. This, guaranteed, will leave you in a better place than justification and blame.