Virginia Thomas has done the nation a great service. In calling up Anita Hill, now a Brandeis law professor whose calm but graphic accusations of sexual harassment put the eeew in Clarence Thomas’s Seeewpreme Court confirmation hearings 20 years ago, Ginni, as the Justice’s wife is known, has provided a casebook example of how not to effect a reconciliation. There are spouses, CEOs, even heads of state for whom this could be a teachable moment.
Let’s put aside, for the purposes of this discussion, the possibility that what Ms. Thomas did was politically motivated, insane or the result of early morning tippling. And let’s also put aside Prof. Hill’s motives in handing the tape of Ms. Thomas’ call — she left a message on the machine — over to Brandeis security and cooperating with the media over the story. Let’s just say that Ms. Thomas was really, truly, sincerely trying to offer an olive branch to her husband’s accuser and to put “the passed,” as she wrote in her media statement, behind them. If this is so, she made some rookie errors. Let’s break it down:
“I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something,” Ms. Thomas said to Hill.
It’s a very promising opening statement. But then, oh no, the follow up:
“I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”
Ugh. Really? An offer for Hill to apologize? In the history of global and personal conflict, has the magnanimous offer to accept an apology ever worked on anyone who’s over 6 years old? Does that work at home after a marital spat with Clarry? (More on Time.com: Top 10 National Apologies).
Rule No. 1 of mending fences with a former nemesis: first try to put yourself in his or her shoes. How must this fight have felt from the other side? What injuries did your enemy sustain that you might have indirectly or directly caused? If you can’t find one shred of shared humanity, just hang up the phone. Don’t ring rancorous.
Let’s roleplay this. Here’s what Ms. Thomas might have said:
“I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and say I have come to understand that the whole situation was horrible for you too, and that you were the recipient of a lot of extreme and inappropriate vitriol. And I wanted to make sure you knew that while we don’t understand what you did, we in no way condone the treatment you received as a result.”
While it’s still a weird phone call to make, especially 19 years after the event, it at least appears to be well-intentioned craziness, and speaks of a boldness that’s often necessary after two parties have been at odds for so long. (Think of Nixon going to China.) And it gets at the key benefit of forgiveness, which is that you pardon an evildoer not for her sake, but for your own, to liberate yourself from useless anger against her. Forgiveness, as they say, is the gift you give yourself. (More on Time.com: Apologies: a Great Tradition).
If you really can’t find an ounce of sympathy for your enemy’s situation, but you nevertheless need to try to build bridges, here’s Reconciliation Rule No. 2: do what crisis PR people recommend and fake something. Ms. Thomas could have tried this:
“I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and apologize if in some unforeseen way our actions inadvertently caused offense to a woman of your delicate sensibilities. It was certainly not our intention.”
The old “sorry if I upset you” route is the go-to tactic of politicians, celebrities, media corporations and spouses for a reason. It looks and smells like an apology, but acknowledges no wrongdoing. It’s a fauxpology. Of course, it would be more effective coming from your husband, but other wives will identify with your willingness to clean up after someone else. (More on Time.com: Mind Reading: An Author Takes Back Her Accusation of Incest).
Better still is not to do this kind of work over the airwaves. It was smart not to use email and we’ve all seen how much trouble text messages can cause. But reconciliation, like dating or assassination, goes much more smoothly if you actually meet your target face-to-face, with a full acknowledgment of the awkwardness of the whole situation.
“I know this must seem kind of strange, me calling you up out of the blue like this in the wee hours of the morning, at your office before you’re in, but I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. Would you ever meet me for coffee to discuss what happened?”
And then, maybe, to sweeten the pot:
“You choose the place. I’ll buy. Triple mocha latte, whatever you want. Heck, I could even throw in a cupcake.”
(Be careful what you offer. In Ms. Hill’s case, you wouldn’t suggest a muffin. Or a Coke.)
If your opponent balks at a private meeting, it’s time to think outside the box. Take a leaf out of the enemy playbook — that beer summit President Obama hosted worked like a charm.
“I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. Did you know Ruthie has a Book Club at her place? Wanna go?”
(Caveat: you might want to tee this up with Justice Ginsberg first.)
If all else fails, it’s time to start from square one and go back to the first, most primal relationship habits and methods we have.
“I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something: friending me on Facebook.”
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