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“I’m Sorry You Feel Like That . . .”

People often arrive in mediation wanting an apology. Common complaints include feeling unheard, disrespected and unfairly treated. These get translated into statements such as:

• “I feel totally ignored and excluded.”
• “You treat me like some kind of child.”
• “Nothing I want seems to matter. All you care about is you!”
• “I feel you don’t trust anything I do and constantly undermine my decisions.”
• “I can’t believe you won’t even try and be civil about this. I’m really upset.”

In some sense, the issue isn’t whether the other person actually intended to do any of these things. Hurt has been caused; an apology is due.

So why is it when the aggrieved party hears “I’m sorry that you feel like that…” it makes so little difference? If anything it can make the situation worse. Despite the presence of the word “sorry” the one looking for an apology is neither satisfied nor soothed.

And having commiserated for the way the other feels, the apologiser is now confused by the rejection of their sympathy. They begin to suspect that the ‘victim’ doesn’t actually want an apology. That what they really want is to punish, to ratchet up the guilt, to get their pound of flesh. “I’ve said I’m sorry – what more do you want? Do I have to get down on my knees?”

And now it’s the injured party’s turn to get angry. “I want a real apology – that’s not a real apology!” Icy stares are exchanged, fingers pointed, voices raised. We are moments away from emotional meltdown.

So what is it that makes an apology ‘real’ or not?

I believe the difference revolves around the quality of repentance. To repent is to turn towards oneself. The problem with offering sympathy for the upset is that it leaves oneself out of the loop. It is precisely this absence that is so keenly felt.

This attitude is reflected in the language used:
• “I can see how upset you are.”
• “You’re obviously very distraught”
• “That wasn’t my intention.”
• “You’ve clearly got the wrong end of the stick.”

The responses fall into two categories. In the first, the apologiser positions themselves as a sympathetic witness rather than a culpable participant. At best, the aim of sympathy is to close down conversation. Once expressed, there is nothing else to say. One has tried to soothe hurt feelings, to make things better. Having done so, there is the expectation that things should now get back to normal. The incident is closed and need not be referred to again.

In the latter replies, the speaker admits to being part of the dynamic, but disavowals any responsibility for the subsequent distress. This reluctance to admit responsibility is often linked to the fear of incurring punishment and blame. So to avoid the ‘blame game’ we adopt a kind of legalistic thinking. Believing that our intentions were blameless, the only sensible response is to plead not guilty. “Of course I was in the vicinity your honour, but I never had the slightest intention to cause any harm…”

Only repentance isn’t about accusation and blame. Repentance is about admitting to imperfection, of possessing something less than perfect knowledge. It invites a fuller stepping into the messiness of the human condition. A repentant attitude sees life as a space in which our actions often lead to unexpected consequences.

Having done a handful of doctor/patient mediations, what struck me was the capacity for some doctors to convey repentance. They were able to acknowledge their limitations and the terrible consequences that sometimes arise precisely because of their humanness. These cases usually settled. Those doctors who mouthed an apology for the pain and suffering, without including their part in the proceedings, invariably went on to tribunal.

Each of our actions – whether taken or avoided – belongs to us. I may not have wished or wanted what happened, but I can’t deny my part. For an apology to have meaning, what needs to be said and what needs to be heard is that pain was caused. Without this acknowledgement, this acceptance, we try to leave responsibility behind. Only we can’t. Not now, not ever.

Mediators need to remember that repentance isn’t about apportioning blame. Blame is a label, it isn’t a conversation. Mediation is a mode of conversation, some of them about very difficult and painful things. The context of these conversations is always a relational one, where individuals are invited to step into a mutual space, rather than fracturing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Fundamentally, an apology is an admission that there is still more to learn. As in any lesson, we can only start from where we currently are – which in this case entails seeing the impact of our thoughts, feelings and actions. That these moments usually correlate with another’s pain and suffering makes it harder to just ignore or pretend. And in educational terms, not being able to turn away from what’s directly in front of us has to be a good thing.

For mediators, the challenge is to help parties understand that apologies aren’t about the apportioning of blame, but the need for more human conversations. For better or worse, pain is often the clearest marker of ignorance and misunderstanding. To apologise is one way of saying that there is yet more to learn – both about the other and about oneself.


Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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