Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Effective Apologies


What Works?

Individuals and business leaders often find themselves apologizing or dealing with requests for an apology. Most are seeking forgiveness and many wish to make things right. But correcting mistakes is not always easy.

An apology is a statement that acknowledges offence or failure accompanied by an expression of regret. Psychological research adds features found to be effective in the sense that most people will accept the apology.

Having an affair destroys most romantic relationships
Some partners do forgive and reconcile. Many do not. In an age of ubiquitous cameras, high speed internet communication, and hackers, odds increase that cheaters will be revealed to a wide audience. Of course, it’s not just the spouse or partner who suffers—children, relatives, and close friends hurt as well.

Usually the small stuff can be handled with an “I’m sorry” as long as it appears genuine. 
When the offense causes some difficulty, reputable businesses make amends. For example, after incorrect ticketing in China, I was moved to business class–too bad it was only an hour flight! Larger offenses cause more distress and law suits are costly.

Church leaders know a lot about public apologies too.
Canadian leaders apologized for the way early Canadians ill-treated First Nations People in residential schools. Many of the schools were religious. Catholic leaders apologized for clergy sexual abuse of children and cover-ups. From time to time religious leaders admit to sexual infidelity.


FIRST with TRUTH is an easy way to remember six effective components of an apology. The letters in the word "TRUTH" refer to five ideas linked to research. Add the concept of being "FIRST" and you have my six suggestions.

  Apologies usually work as a package.

People receiving an apology often need several items to be present to forgive the offense. Keep in mind that apologies do not always work. And the setting needs to be safe for all involved. Finally, in serious matters, consult an attorney.

1. Be FIRST in telling the truth. Apologies are more effective when people and businesses do not wait until they are caught. Reputable businesses recall their faulty products when they discover something is wrong. Hiding the truth can look like a "cover-up," which victims despise. Covering up the truth has serious negative consequences. Consider the plight of churches that covered up clergy abuse.

People who want a trusting relationship apologize for events likely to have an impact on their partner or spouse. If you damaged the car or broke something meaningful it’s usually good to confess before your partner finds out.

But, some acts like an affair evoke strong emotions such that the victim needs to be prepared to receive an apology. If in doubt, ask a third party like a counselor or mediator to help. So apologizing before being caught is a general rule but exceptions exist when a confession can lead to harm.

2. Tell the TRUTH. A complete and truthful apology is important. Clearly state, “I apologize.” And clearly state what you apologize for. Provide sufficient details so it’s clear that you recognize the problem you or your business caused. If you’re not good at expressing yourself, ask for help.

3. Take RESPONSIBILITY. “I was wrong.” Admitting fault is often a key to an effective apology. Leave off excuses and explanations that can sound like excuses. Giving reasons for what you did can sound like it’s not your fault, which discounts the effectiveness of your apology.

4. UNDO the harm. Undoing the harm can be impossible in some cases but a sincere and generous offer can go a long way toward making amends. When my wife and I had problems with work on our house, the business apologized, refunded our final payment, and hired a professional to make it right.

In personal matters, it may take a third party to mediate a settlement. Counselors, clergy, and professional mediators can sometimes help.

5. Demonstrate REMORSE. Most people need to see evidence of remorse-sometimes it means seeing an emotional response consistent with remorse. This is a tough one. Some offenders cry easily and others have difficulty showing emotion even when they feel remorseful. In contrast, some victims have been burned so badly that they do not trust displays of emotion as genuine, whilst others are quick to accept an apology and forgive with any reasonable sign of remorse. When you can see the offense from the perspective of the victim, you are likely on your way toward an empathy. Empathy is a key to feeling remorseful.

6. HUMBLY explain the HISTORY of the events leading up to the offense in response to questions. Many people want answers. They want to know why you or your business did such a thing. People want satisfactory answers but what satisfies one person may not satisfy another. And, as noted above, keep in mind explanations can sound like excuses.

Perhaps humility is a key here. All honest people can do is share their version of events leading up to the offense. In some cases you may need to verify relevant facts or events. Even when things cannot be undone as in the case of a death as a result of an accident, families still want to know the details of what happened.



           Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18, 109-130.  doi 10.1037/a002809

Sutton, G. W. (2016). A house divided: Sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick. ISBN: 9781498224888

Thomas, E. K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Forgiveness, apology, and restitution. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10, 308-327. Academia Link    Research Gate Link

Thomas, E. K., White, K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Apology, responsibility-taking, gender, forgiveness, and restoration. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 16-29. Academia Link    Research Gate Link

           Wilkinson, M. (2010). Public acts of forgiveness: What happens when Canadian churches and governments seek forgiveness for social sins of the past?  In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. (pp. 177–198). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.


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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Psychotherapy and Counseling

Most people do not distinguish between the concepts psychotherapy and counseling. Psychotherapy is a working communication relationship between two people--a clinician and a person seeking help. The kinds of help provided vary with the clinician but commonly include strategies for relieving emotional distress, solving or coping with life problems (e.g., grief, couple or family relationships, school or career decisions), and changing thoughts and behavior patterns that interfere with adapting to and enjoying life.

In the past, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers provided psychotherapy. Counselors, some nurses, and some clergy provided counseling. Nowadays, clinicians use both terms. Most providers are licensed or certified to provide the services they advertise. Psychiatrists are physicians. Psychologists hold doctorates in psychology (some hold a master's degree). Other clinicians usually hold at least a master's degree.

I was a psychotherapist for many years. Like others of my era, we went to conferences, watched demonstrations, and read books in an effort to become better therapists. Many of us had years of supervision during school and after graduation. We believed that new research would uncover effective treatments or new components of treatments that would help our clients get well.

Several other factors came into play: medications and managed care.

As medications became more specific for the treatment of common conditions like depression and anxiety, I and others began to wonder about the value of psychotherapy- especially if medication was better or equal to psychotherapy and cost less. In this light, I began to take courses in psychopharmacology in the hope that psychologists could prescribe medication. I worked with others to pass legislation before I decided to retire from psychotherapy.

The second factor was the emergence of managed care insurance companies that gained control of approving psychotherapy visits. Approvals required increasing amounts of paperwork and the payment to clinicians was drastically reduced. For therapists trained in cognitive-behavioral approaches like myself, it was no big deal to provide treatment goals, document interventions, and provide data. Indeed, we considered this "scientific approach" the only way to do psychotherapy. The hassle was mostly dealing with approvals and different forms from different insurance companies.

Psychotherapy Works

On average, a person who participates in psychotherapy is better off than about 79% of people who do not get treatment.

This statistic is based on an average effect size of .80 in treatment studies reported by Bruce Wampold, “The research evidence for The common factors models: A historically situated Perspective.” 2010, p. 55.

Psychotherapists still care a lot about effective interventions. But what we have learned is that there are other factors at work when people get well. Psychotherapy works. Psychotherapy can be powerful. But it's not always a particular treatment technique that works. Instead, psychotherapy works based upon several interactive components.

The secret sauce in psychotherapy is the whole package consisting of five active ingredients.

Remembers the five factors by the acronym PRICE.

PRICE =  Psychotherapists, Relationship, Interventions, Clients, Extratherapeutic.


The fact is, some clinicians are better than others. We know that and yet you do not hear much about it. It's difficult to isolate specific factors. But in common experience we know people who are warm, inspiring, and full of hope. Their enthusiasm can be catching. We also know people who are dull and boring or who appear cold and aloof. Some psychotherapists are also brilliant and full of creative ideas-others not so much.

Findings from the work of Carl Rogers still make sense about the need for a warm and caring psychotherapist. Psychotherapists are also responsible for setting expectations. Expectations are important to outcomes. Psychotherapists are not equally effective. More research is needed on the therapist as a highly important factor.

Relationship (therapeutic or working alliance)

The relationship between a psychotherapist and a client is a critical component in treatment. Many effective outcomes can be traced to the connection made at the first session. As in any endeavor in life involving two or more people, a working relationship is important to success. Research suggests that an effective working alliance depends on the therapist and agreement on the treatment goals and procedures.


Treatment does matter in the context of the other factors. But often a specific type of treatment can be as good as another if the therapist is skilled at the intervention and an organized approach is employed. It's also important that both psychotherapist and client collaborate in the process. The fact that different interventions work suggests there is something about the confidence therapist and client place in the explanation and activities.

Clients (or Patients)

 More research is needed about the role of clients in successful outcomes. But we do know that some client characteristics are important. Level of motivation, personality factors, and attachment history are a few factors linked to outcomes. What's highly important is their participation according to Orlinsky and colleagues. Clients are agents who actively shape therapy as they interact with a therapist.

Clients are better at determining successful outcomes than are therapists. Getting client feedback is important to evidenced-based practice.

Extratherapeutic factors

This is a catchall term for things that happen in life, which can be linked to outcomes. Changes in general health, jobs, relationships, and many other aspects of life can make a significant difference in how people fare during a course of psychotherapy. These factors are beyond the control of the psychotherapist but must be kept in mind if we are to be honest about the role of psychotherapy.

Perspective on Medicine

I continue to be in awe of the advances made in modern medicine. I am glad for the progress that helps so many of us live better and longer lives with less pain than in the recent past. There is no reason to detract from the medical model.

But there is reason to realize the important role of psychological factors in wellness overall and in the treatment of those conditions considered psychological (e.g., depression, anxiety). The fact is, at this point in time, psychotherapy is more effective than some medications. And that relationship factors between physician and patient are important for outcomes in general health as well.

I no longer provide psychotherapy. I write, give talks, and consult on research projects


To read more, see the edited work by B. L. Duncan and others The heart and soul of change: Delivering what works in therapy (2nd ed.).  Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

For an important summary:

Orlinsky, D. E., Ronnestad, M. H., & Willutzki, U. (2004). Fifty years of psychotherapy
process-outcome research: Continuity and change. In M. J. Lambert (Ed.),
Bergin and Garfield's handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change (5th ed.,
pp. 307-390). New York: Wiley.

Other related research

Sutton, G. W., Arnzen, C., & Kelly, H. (2016). Christian counseling and psychotherapy: Components of clinician spirituality that predict type of Christian intervention. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 35, 204-214. Academia Link    ResearchGate Link


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 Geoff W. Sutton

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Microaggression Definition and Examples

Microaggressions are the harmful acts of host-culture members toward people considered part of a different culture. The acts communicate negative attitudes, insults, snubs, slights, and rejection. The acts may be intentional or unintentional but function to restrict the progress and freedom of those who are considered not a part of the host culture.

Microaggressions accumulate and have the potential to cause significant harm. Therapists and organizational leaders need to be aware of common microaggressions.

What’s in a name?

A lot. Names are a primary component of one’s identity. Granted, when you first hear an unfamiliar name it can be a challenge to get the spelling and pronunciation right. Sensitive people make an effort. Perhaps you know someone whose name is often distorted?

Some of us give up and adopt a spelling that can be pronounced by those in the host culture. When I was growing up I went by "Jeff"... many still can't pronounce or spell "Geoff" or "Geoffrey." My friends from other lands and cultures have it far worse!

Making fun of people’s names is common among children. When teachers mess with your name you know you have a problem. Persistence is misspelling and mispronunciation is a constant reminder that you are an alien, stranger, outsider—not one of the group. Take time to learn the names of new employees and students.

How well you speak English

This off-hand comment sounds like it should be a compliment right? I hear people say this to international students. Sometimes it’s said to a person from a minority culture.

About a year after coming to the United States friends took us to a Southern U.S. state to meet their family. “How long have you been here?” a relative asked. After learning the short time, a woman with a distinctly southern accent said: “My my, how well you speak English.” “Mother, they are English,” our friend explained. I remember working hard to learn to speak "American" so I could fit in.

But there are more serious situations than I encountered.

An acquaintance hails from a central European country and speaks with a slight accent. “He’s been here 20 years—you’d think he’d drop the accent,” said another. Some members of minority groups have been in the U.S. all their life but are made to feel like foreigners when their "English" is praised or corrected.

BTW: It's not easy for Brits to learn an American accent as British actors have found out.

What’s wrong with her?

In conservative religious cultures, women are expected to be married mothers. That’s changing slowly. But I still hear people wondering about the character of a single women approaching (or past) age 30. 

I haven’t heard the same about men. Cultural norms can be particularly strong in religious cultures. Any deviation from the norm is often met with challenging questions or comments. Dealing with people from religious cultures can be a challenge. The microagressions can go both ways-- host culture vs. religious subculture. But those in the nondominant position suffer the most.

Microaggressions toward women and sexual minorities don''t just happen in religious cultures- they appear in secular work and school cultures as well.

Silent treatment

Silence can be hostile. You’d think that company leaders and educators would be more aware of the importance of inclusion to company or school morale. 

Some believe: “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything.” But silence can mean a lot of things. In a context where others receive a smile, recognition at meetings or in company publications, invitations to after-work events, and so forth, being ignored sends a strong message. Silence keeps people at a distance.

Sometimes it seems that people who have been treated as outsiders expect to be treated as outsiders and act in ways to maintain social distance.

Silence is not always golden.

"You need to be more assertive"

Some cultures value a quiet, reserved, and nonintrusive approach to social interactions.

Some of us attempt to assimilate to the dominant American culture as we perceive it. But it still feels awkward at times. I’ve learned that other cultures in the U.S. share this cultural reticence, which can be perceived by many Americans as being shy, intimidated, or weak.

U.S. Soldiers headed for England received booklets with advice about their hosts: "reserved, not unfriendly", and tough, even though they may appear soft-spoken and polite. They are not "panty-waists" (BBC)

I'm sure you can imagine the opposite-- people considered obnoxious, rude, and intrusive because of their cultural style of interacting.

Diversity at Work and School

Read a lot more

There are many more examples of microaggressions in a table (link), which is drawn from Derald Wing Sue’s 2010 book, Microaggressionsin Everyday Life.

Help raise a generation of respectful adults-- Discipline with Respect

More about cultures and the microagressions taking place within Christian cultures. As well as the value of forgiveness.

A House Divided  on AMAZON

Also, Christian Morality on   AMAZON


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