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Apologies Are Not for Everyone!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

In my various mediator trainings, the use of an apology as a means of resolving a dispute has often been discussed and advocated. Indeed, books have even been written on the use and power of an apology. (See for example: On Apology by Aaron Lazare). I have even advocated its use in some of my mediations as a means of resolving a dispute. And … have seen it work wonders!

So, I was a bit surprised to read a New York Times article entitled In Politics, Apologies Are for Losers by Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard Law School Professor (Sunday Review Section-July 27, 2019) proposing that at least for public figures, “…an apology is a risky strategy.” (Id.)

Professor Sunstein bases this conclusion on some limited surveys he conducted using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. He presented four different scenarios to four demographically diverse groups of about 300 people each:

  • Suppose a nominee for attorney general said a few years ago: “Gays and lesbians are violating God’s will. Marriage should be between Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
  • Suppose a presidential candidate said a few years ago, “People who want to ban abortion just don’t care about women.”
  • Suppose a nominee for secretary of state said a few years ago, “I think the United States should apologize for the many terrible things that it has done in the world.”
  • Suppose a presidential candidate has been accused by a number of women of inappropriate touching — of getting too close to them, of hugging them too much, of hugging them too long. Some of the women said they felt violated.

In all four cases, participants were asked to suppose that the public figure apologized for the statement or behavior in question, and were asked whether the apology would make them more likely to support him or her, less likely to do so, or neither less nor more inclined to support the public figure. (Id.)

What the Professor found was that in each scenario, there were more people less inclined to support the offender than those who were more inclined to support the offender once the apology was made.  For example, in the hypothetical in which the nominee disparaged same-sex marriage, 37 percent would be less inclined to support the offender while 22  percent said they would be more inclined. Forty-one percent (41%) said  neither. (Id.)

Again, in the abortion hypothetical, 36.5 percent stated they would be less inclined to support the offender while 20 percent said they would be more inclined and again 43.5 percent said neither. (Id.)

The percentages in the next two hypotheticals  also favored the less inclined :

In the case of the would-be secretary of state, 41.5 percent said that they would be less inclined to support the apologizing nominee; 23 percent said that they would be more inclined; 35.5 percent said neither.

In the case of inappropriate touching, 29 percent said that they would be less inclined to support the apologizing candidate; 25 percent said that they would be more inclined; 46 percent said neither.  (Id.)

The author opines that perhaps the reason that the public does not want to hear apologies from public figures is because an apology is in essence a confession, an admission of guilt. And who would want to vote for or at least back someone who admits to being guilty of wrongdoing? (Id.) Some of the public may take it as a sign of weakness! (Id.)

The author admits that his research is preliminary and  based on small survey samples. But, he does point out that at least on a moral level, apologies “are mandatory” in that they may be a way of showing respect to those who have been hurt and recognizing the dignity of others. (Id.)

So… while this article raises food for thought, I am going to still stick with the notion that an apology is a very powerful thing and it never hurts to say “I’m sorry” when the situation calls for it. If nothing else, it shows respect and dignity for the person offended and more importantly, that you realize you are not “perfect”; none of us are! We are all “human”!

…. Just something to think about!  


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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