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Saying “I’m Sorry” Ain’t So Easy

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

As a mediator, I hear a lot about the value of apologies and how apologizing can make a difference in resolving (or not resolving) a matter and/or doing so for far less monetary value than would occur without an apology.

So, I decided to pick up a book on the topic. In On Apology, Aaron Lazare (Oxford University Press 2004) discusses the many different aspects of an apology. While at first glance, one might think this is a simple topic, Mr. Lazare shows it is really quite complex. As he explains, the apology process is actually a paradox: although it is seemingly simple and straight forward to say “I apologize” or “I am sorry”, it is, at the same time, a remarkably complex process. (Id. at p. 22-23).

It seems that apologies have an anatomy or a structure:

““Apology” refers to an encounter between two parties in which one party, the offender, acknowledges responsibility for an offense or grievance and expresses regret or remorse to a second party. . . .”

“Some scholars suggest additional criteria for apology, such as an explanation for the offense, an expression of shame and/or guilt, the intention not to commit the offense again, and reparations to the offended party. . . .” (Id. at p. 23).

Thus, it seems, the simple words “I am sorry” to be effective as a true apology must: (1) acknowledge the offense; (2) accept responsibility, or, provide an explanation; (3) express various attitudes and behaviors such as remorse, shame, humility, and/or sincerity; and (4) offer reparations. (Id. at p. 25, 35). Quite a lot of work for 3 simple words!

In pointing out that an apology is a four step process, the author notes that this process can occur over a broad spectrum of situations; on an individual level (one to one), on a cultural or societal level (from one nation or culture to another), explicitly (verbally) or even implicitly (a brief nod or a handshake) or publicly or privately. The apology can be just a few words or a lengthy speech given by a head of state on behalf of or to a nation (e.g. President Lincoln’s apology for American slavery. (Id. at p. 78)). That is, its circumstances can be as varied as one’s imagination.

But, for all of these different types of apologies to work, each must successfully satisfy certain psychological needs of the offended party. To heal the damaged relationship with the offended party, the author explains that the apology must satisfy the offended party’s following needs:

• “Restoration of self-respect and dignity
• Assurance that both parties have shared values
• Assurance that the offenses were not their fault
• Assurance of safety in their relationships
• Seeing the offender suffer
• Reparation for the harm caused by the offense
• Having meaningful dialogues with the offenders.”
(Id. at p. 44).

In the simplest of terms, most offenses are viewed as an assault on one’s dignity or self-respect or honor. They are viewed as insults or humiliations. (Id. at p. 45).

By the offender acknowledging she made a mistake, she affirms that her values are the same as those of the offended person, – i.e. that they both have shared values – and that it will not happen again. (Id. at p. 53). By doing so, the offender also acknowledges that the offended party is blameless who will then feel exonerated, if not validated in her innocence. (Id. at p. 58-59).

The author notes that for some apologies to be effective, “the offended party needs to see the offending party suffer.” (Id. at p. 61). This suffering may simply be the offender expressing shame, guilt, remorse, et cetera or it may be a bit more complex by the offended party waiting awhile (hours, days, weeks, years) before accepting the apology to insure that the offended party is suffering (also known colloquially as “tit for tat”, “eye for an eye” or “retributive justice.” (Id. at p. 62)).

Mr. Lazare points out that there is a difference between “reparation” and “settlement”:

“Reparation refers to repairing, undoing the damage, making amends or giving satisfaction for an acknowledged wrong or injury. (When the party makes redress without acknowledging remorse, we tend to refer to this process as a “settlement”, not “reparation”). . . . Reparation is the central or dominating feature of the apology.” (Id. at p. 64).

And finally, and what many mediators have learned, for an apology to heal, it must be an interactive process: there must be dialogue or negotiations between the offender and the offended party. The victim must be able to express her distress, its meaning, nature and severity, to the offender. She must be able to tell her story: “the mere act of telling what happened [is] a healing emotional release.” (Id. at p. 67). It is a catharsis of sorts. . . and with the telling, the offended party can move past the offense and allow the apology to have a healing effect.

Mr. Lazare further discusses why some people are able and/or willing to apologize while others are unable and/or willing to do so. The first group acts in response to either strong internal feelings (they need “. . .to resolve and maintain their own dignity and self esteem”) and/or to strong external pressure (“. . .they want to influence how others perceive and behave toward them.” (Id. at p. 134)).

In contrast, the second group – those who are unable and/or unwilling to apologize – act out of fear, embarrassment and/or shame. They fear the reaction of the offended party (rejection) and/or they are embarrassed and/or ashamed of the self-image it creates. (Id. at p. 160).

Before I read this book, I thought an apology was a pretty simple thing. But, as you can see, it is not: it is rather complex. So, the next time, I suggest its use in a mediation, I will tread a lot more carefully: there are a lot more ramifications to saying “I’m sorry” than I ever imagined!

. . .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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