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When Sorry Can’t Be The Only Word

The latest research into apologising will come as no surprise to those who work in the mediation arena. The research published in the Journal of Negotiation and Conflict Management and conducted by researchers at the Ohio State University reviewed numerous previous studies on apologies as well as conducting their own studies. The study by Roy J. Lewicki, Beth Polin, and Robert B. Lount Jr identified 6 key components that effective apologies should cover. The study made clear that whilst the most effective apologies cover all 6 components, certain components were much more persuasive in eliciting forgiveness and regaining trust than others.

The 6 components of an effective apology are:
1. Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
4. Declaration of repentance
5. Offer of repair
6. Request for forgiveness

The study says that admitting that you did something wrong (component 3) is the number one factor in creating a good apology. Roy Lewicki one of the researchers explained that “the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility”. In a mediation, many participants have become “mediation savvy” and apologise as a matter of course. The element that is often missing in this apology is the acknowledgement of responsibility. The apology without the acknowledgement is not without value. In many cases, one party is spurred on, not just by monetary considerations, but also, ‘on principle’. They wish to hear the ‘wrongdoer’ admit their responsibility and regret. Sometimes, just the act of apologising will go some way to cooling the emotions and opening up constructive communication between the parties, but without authenticity an apology can fall very short of making a real difference.

The study found that the second most important element of an apology was an offer of repair. Without some offer of reparation in some form (even if it is not a tangible benefit) the apology has little weight. Words are easy to come by, actions less so. In mediation, an apology is not an admittance of liability as it would be in open litigation. Severing the connection between the apology and the liability has the great advantage of enabling participants to say sorry without worrying that they are compromising their negotiating position by admitting legal liability. This is particularly relevant to doctors being able to express regret for their mistakes without their insurance companies gagging them. However, whilst this makes apologising easier, to really have an effect on the mediation process, there has to be a realisation that saying sorry is not a standalone concept. Offers of repair transform the word “sorry” into a true apology.

Carl Schneider in his article “What it is to say sorry” identified three key elements of an apology. The elements were; acknowledgement, affect and vulnerability. The “acknowledgment” mentioned in Schneider’s article is analogous to acknowledgment of responsibility of the Ohio study. Similarly, the “affect” in Schneider’s article is analogous to the offer to repair in the Ohio study. The third element of the Schneider article is vulnerability. Schneider explains that this is where an apology is offered without defence. The apology is offered and puts the apologiser in a vulnerable position as his apology may be refused, and the offended party can punish the apologiser for the wrong done. This element is somewhat mitigated in a mediation setting. Since mediation is a confidential process and any agreement has to be consensual, the apology itself does not have ramifications further than the apologiser agrees to. (Although, as seen below, even where there are no legal ramifications, participants can still perceive an apology as creating a vulnerability in that it may show a weakness in his negotiating stance.)

In a mediation, mediators can be quick to jump on a participant’s apology as a way of moving forward, but it is prudent to check the apology before proceeding. How is it being received? Does it contain the requisite factors to be accepted? Sometimes participants will be happy with a blanket “words only apology” and in other situations a “words only apology” can be seen as a blatant attempt at manipulating the mediation.

Despite the “safe space” that a mediation creates, (by allowing apologies without attaching liability to them) participants can be reticent to apologise from fear of any perceived vulnerability in the negotiation process. To combat this, a mediator may encourage apologising in stages. Once some form of apology has been proffered this can be explored and the motivation behind the apology can be uncovered. There are many difficulties in this approach, as the participant may not have delved at all into why he is offering an apology. Probing too deeply too fast can carry the risk that in examination of the apology the apologiser may wish to retract even a limited form of apology. However, where there has been an acknowledgement that the motivation behind the apology is regret for some form of wrongdoing, it is usually easier to build a more full and sincere apology and for some offer of repair to be raised.

The new study has simply empirically proven what many mediators know to be true; real apologies need authenticity, acknowledgement of responsibility and an offer of repair to have an impact on a mediation and a resolution to a conflict.


Roy J. Lewicki et al. An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies, Negotiation and Conflict Management Research (2016).
What It Means To Be Sorry: The Power Of Apology In Mediation’ by Carl D Schneider. First published in the Mediation Quarterly, Vol. 17, Number 3 (Spring 2000)



Hadassah Fidler

Hadassah Fidler LLB qualified as a lawyer in the UK and then retrained as a licensed mediator both in England and in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem, Israel, where she has a mediation practice specialising in mediation for English speakers. MORE >

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