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Will Tiger’s Apology Be Enough?

From the Mediation Matters Blog of Steve Mehta.

With Tiger Wood’s apology out today, the question that everyone is asking (in light of other sex scandals) is: “Is this apology genuine?” There are many opinions on this issue, but I think another question that is missing is “will the victim accept that apology?”

First, here is the apology from Tiger Woods.

There is a good likelihood that the public will probably accept his apology as genuine. After all, other celebrities such as Robert Downey Jr., Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant, Bill Clinton (and the list goes on) have had scandals and then made it back in the public light.

But in private, the answer may be very different. We certainly know that Kobe bought a huge diamond ring for his wife. We suspect that Bill had some deal with Hillary so she could also maintain her bid for the oval office.

In mediation too, the answer can be different than the fickle nature of the public. Sometimes an apology – although giving the maker of the apology a feeling of relief – can have little or no impact on the receiver of the apology.

In order for an apology to have a meaningful affect there have to be two main preconditions: The apology has to be right and the victim has to be in a position to willingly accept the apology.

Is The apology right?

There are several views of whether an apology is appropriate for the circumstances. Holly Weeks of Harvard suggests that the following is necessary for an apology to be appropriate:

1. Find words that are clear and accurate—not provocative. A good apology should make the person wronged think, “Yes, she understands.” Often what the offended person wants is accountability and vigilance; he wants to know that it won’t happen again.

2. Don’t apologize for the wrong thing. People and institutions tend to apologize for what they find forgivable. If there is no clear relationship between what the offender is apologizing for and what the offended experienced as the original wrong, the apology actually exacerbates the problem. At best, the offender will seem blind to the problem; at worst, he will be perceived as intentionally distorting it.

That gives the offended two problems: the original offense and the sense that a similar offense is likely to occur. The offended party thinks, “How can I accept this apology? It makes me appear to be complicit in allowing the problem to happen again.”

3. Consider the angle of approach. Decide whether it will be easier for you to apologize position to position or person to person. If you are angry with the person you’ve got to apologize to, it may be easier to frame the apology in terms of your respective jobs or ranks.

For example, while the senior executive remains angry at the junior vice president, he can’t offer a sincere personal apology. But he could apologize to her as a senior administrator to a more junior colleague, from his position to hers. Example: “We both work for a good company, and, as your colleague, I should try harder to see past our individual differences. I’m sorry I spoke harshly.”

Such an apology is likely to resonate favorably with both parties, even when anger between them remains.

In other circumstances, a person-to-person apology is easier to offer. For someone who equates an apology with loss of stature, for instance, the person-to-person apology can appear to be a magnanimous act that does not diminish her. Example: “I can’t agree with the stance you are taking, but I like you and want us to work well together. I’m sorry I spoke harshly.”

Choose the approach that is easier for you to do well. That will save you from making an apology that is so grudging that it fails.

4. Don’t think in terms of an “expression of regret.” Instead, your goal should be actually communicating your regret, that is, getting it across to the other person. Expression is one sided—as though one were getting an apology off one’s chest. Communication, however, occurs between people, and an apology needs to work well for the other person to be effective. Take the focus off yourself and keep it on your counterpart and the three elements of an apology—acknowledgment, regret, and responsibility. That protects you from sounding defensive, and your apology will be better received.

5. “I want to apologize” is not an apology. It’s no more an apology than “I want to lose weight” is a loss of weight. Do the work. Deliver a clear, direct apology; don’t hide behind vagueness, circumlocution, or clichés.

You may not be able to control whether your apology is accepted, but you can control its quality. So make every effort to control what you can. This will increase your chances of feeling good about what you have done with your apology—instead of feeling bad about having to do it. (To read the rest of her article, click here.

In general, an apology should have the following ingredients:

A detailed account of the situation

Acknowledgement of the hurt or damage done

Taking responsibility for the situation

Recognition of your role in the event

Statement of regret

Asking for forgiveness

Promise that it won’t happen again

A form of restitution whenever possible

However, the apology is not just a rote list of ingredients. There is just as much art to the apology as there is science.

Is The Offended Party/Victim Ready To Accept the Apology

One of the necessary preconditions for the apology being accepted is the ability of the victim or offended party to be heard. One study found that later apologies were more effective in part because the victim was given an opportunity to be heard about her feelings. See, Better Late Than Early, The Influence of Timing On Apology Effectiveness. Although there is debate as to the timing of the apology, it is generally agreed that the apology needs to provide the plaintiff to be heard, to express their feelings and to be satisfied that the repentant person is in fact repentant.

Often, the apology is also a form of allowing the victim to be raised in stature and for the person who is apologizing to be lowered in stature. Many times in older traditions, people bow their heads in apology. This is also a symbolic gesture of lowering your head at the mercy of the other person. The apology must give the victim a sense of power over the person who created the offense. Failure to transfer that sense of power will not be a hospitable condition for the apology.

Sometimes, the apology requires the victim of the offense to understand that the offending party has suffered. Some people require that the offending person give that pound of flesh. Only then will the apology be accepted.

Finally, no matter what you do, there can be the apology that may never get accepted. That is the risk of the apology. Many people think that the mere fact that you made the apology means that the other person has to accept it. On the contrary, the apology should reflect that you know that you have done wrong, and that you are at the mercy of the other person to accept it. The nature of the apology means that the other person doesn’t have to accept it, but you have to give it to ever have a chance of it being accepted.

So in the end, How Did Tiger Do?

I would say that Tiger scored with high marks for his apology . He outlined his transgressions, acknowledged the hurt to his family and supporters, owned up to the problem as his problem and not others’, demonstrated regret and as for forgiveness while demonstrating that he will change and that this will never happen again.


Steve Mehta

Steven G. Mehta is an attorney and mediator providing unique mediation services in a variety of types of civil litigation. His ability to understand the human process and complex emotional issues involved in legal negotiations enables him to effectively assist the parties in obtaining the best possible results during mediation.… MORE >

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