Rick Hanson PhD
Dec 29, 2011
Admit fault and move on
Have you ever watched two people quarrel, or otherwise be stuck in a conflict with each other? Usually, if either or both of them simply acknowledged one or more things, that would end the fight.
Recall a time someone mistreated you, let you down, dropped the ball, made an error, spoke harshly, was unskillful, got a fact wrong, or affected you negatively even if that was not their intention. (This is what I mean, very broadly, under the umbrella heading of “fault.”) If the person refuses to admit fault, how do you feel? Probably dismayed, frustrated, uneasy, distanced, less willing to trust, and more defensive yourself. The interaction – and even the relationship – gets stuck on the unadmitted fault and is shadowed, dragged down, and constrained as a result.
On the other hand, if this person had admitted the fault, how would you have reacted? Probably pretty well! When someone admits fault (always broadly defined, in my usage here) to me, I feel safer, on more solid ground, more at ease, warmer toward them – and more willing to admit faults myself.
Turn this around, and you can see the benefits in admitting faults to others. It cuts to the heart of the matter, reduces a cause of their anxiety or anger, let you move on to other topics (including your own needs), takes the wind out of their sails if they’re lambasting you, and puts you in a stronger position to ask them to admit fault themselves. And as part of admitting fault, it’s natural and important to sincerely commit to avoiding this fault as best you can in the future.
Then you can get beyond the hassle and bad feelings of the unadmitted fault, and move on to something more positive.
For example, recently our adult son called me on a certain – ah – intense positionality I sometimes expressed when he was growing up. I sputtered and deflected awhile in response, but then had to admit the truth of what he was saying (and acknowledge him for his courage in saying it), and told him I wouldn’t do this any more. When I said this, he felt better and I felt better. And then we could move on to good things – like more sushi!
How do we admit fault?
Start by reminding yourself how it is in your own best interests to admit fault and move on. We might think that admitting fault is weak or that it lets the other person off the hook for his or her faults. But actually, it takes a strong person to admit fault, and it puts us in a stronger position with others.
Sort out your fault(s) – mistake, unskillfulness, misdeed, error, etc. – from the other pieces of the puzzle of the interaction or relationship. Don’t overstate your fault out of guilt or appeasement. Be clear and specific in your own mind as to what the fault is – and what is not a fault. You, not anyone else, are the judge of what your fault is.
Admit the fault directly. Be simple and direct. It’s alright to express or explain the context of the fault – like you were tired or upset about something else – but avoid justifying the fault, or getting lawyerly about it; and sometimes, especially in charged situations, it’s best to simply acknowledge your fault without any explanation wrapped around it.
Try to be empathic and compassionate about the consequences of your fault for the other person. Remind yourself why this is good for you to do! Stay on the topic of your fault for a reasonable amount of time; don’t jump quickly to the faults of the other person, but don’t let the other person repetitively pound you for your fault after you’ve admitted it.
Make a commitment inside your mind, and perhaps to the other person, not to do this fault again.
When it feels right, disengage from discussing your fault. Then it could be appropriate to bring up ways the other person could help you in not doing the fault in the future (e.g., getting home in time to help with dinner will help you not yell at the kids). Or bring up a fault of the other person.
And then – sheesh! – it’s time to move on. To more positive topics, or to stepping back in the relationship, or to more productive ways of relating with the person.
Last, to plant a seed I’ll explore in a future JOT, it’s also good to admit a personal fault to yourself . . . and then to let go of guilt, self-criticism, and inadequacy, and to move on to self-compassion, self-care, self-worth, happiness, and inner peace.