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Start 2021 with Apology and Forgiveness!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Recently, I attended another wonderful Zoom presentation sponsored by  Will Work For Food (  entitled “Apology, Forgiveness and Reconciliation” by Professor Emeritus Peter Robinson who taught for  many years at the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University.(He was also a managing director of the Straus program for many years!) (The presentations are free with the request that those attending donate to a food bank of their choice! A wonderful idea during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic!)

It struck me that as we start 2021, perhaps it is a good time to “turn over a new leaf” by apologizing for our acts and/or omissions and forgiving others for their acts/omissions  committed in 2020.

(I also address this topic because apologies and forgiveness are extremely powerful ways to resolve disputes in or outside of mediation This, as a mediator, it is a topic of great interest to me.)

But first about apologies: there is an art to successfully apologizing. It must be done carefully.

As Prof. Robinson pointed out, there are two elements : injury and wrong. Injury: has a person’s (“Actor”) actions hurt another person (“Victim”)? Wrong: is that Actor willing to admit that her actions were wrong?

If so, then one has the  makings of a “remorse” apology. This  type of apology (like other types of apologies) has several elements: acknowledgement, remorse, explanation, and reparation.

“Acknowledgement” means the Actor admits or acknowledges that what she did was wrong. Such acknowledgment can neither be vaguely worded (“Sorry for doing that thing to you.”) nor minimized (“It is no big deal”) nor conditional (“If I upset you, I am sorry”). Rather it must be definite and  stated in the active voice  (“I made a mistake” and not “Mistakes were made”)

The actor must also express “remorse”: acknowledgment that she did wrong or that she knows what she did was wrong. (“I know I knocked over the vey valuable vase.”)

While the Actor may then provide an explanation, she should not be trying to excuse or justify the behavior !(“I was looking down at my phone and not where I was going!”)

And finally, the Actor should offer reparations; take responsibility by trying to right the wrong be it with money or some non-monetary form such as an e mail.

But Prof. Robinson aptly noted that many times the Actor sincerely believes that she did nothing wrong but senses that the other person (“Victim”) has been injured. An example is a partnership dissolution in which one partner “knows” it is best to dissolve the partnership but also knows that the other partners feel very injured by the “breakup.” Prof. Robinson labels this a “regret” apology in which the Actor does acknowledge to some extent that what she is about to do or did is being done with regret (rather than remorse ), but the Actor must move forward for the good of all concerned even though it may cause injury to the others.

Then there is the apology at the other end of the spectrum: one in which the Actor believes that she neither committed any wrong nor injured the other person but believes the other is being overly sensitive. This is what is called the “social harmony” apology. The Actor apologizes to maintain the relationship even though the Actor believes she did nothing  wrong. That is, to maintain social harmony.

Closely related is the “externally motivated“ apology. The Actor apologizes to avoid punishment or severe consequences, again believing that she did nothing wrong and not injure anyone.

Prof Robinson noted that closely tied to apologies is forgiveness: If the Actor apologizes, how should the Victim respond? With forgiveness? The thing about injury and wrong is that not only can it be physical, but more importantly it is emotional; the Victim feels wrongly accused. So, once the Actor apologizes to the Victim, should the Victim forgive?

Such forgiveness could be therapeutic in that the Victim forgives for the sake of her own mental health and well-being. (“The Actor no longer takes up space in my head.”) Or the forgiveness can be redemptive in that it is based on the Victim’s own value system. (“my religious principles do not allow me to hold grudges.”) Or the forgiveness can be “relational” given in an effort to restore the relationship (“To put humpty  dumpty back together again.”)

No matter which category the “forgiveness” falls into, it should be designed to reduce the animus or animosity, to make reparations or amends and perhaps (but not necessarily) continue with a future relationship.

In sum, apology and  forgives are not mutually exclusive but rather go hand in hand. As we start 2021, we should think about starting off right by apologizing and forgetting.

…. 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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