I recently mediated an e-commerce dispute between two parties whose geographic locations made it unrealistic to be in the same room. The online mediation took several weeks of message exchanges and the parties jointly crafted a complex and effective resolution to their real estate dispute. Then one of them wrote, "Ok, now I want an apology from him. I won’t sign the agreement until I get it. It’s his fault that all this happened." Said the other, "Yeah, I’m sorry. Sorry she’s such an awful person."
Much has been written about the power and importance of apology in conflict situations. Since many conflicts involve one party-or both-feeling injured by the other, the ritual exchange or offering of apology can be central to a problem’s true resolution. But apologies are often hard to offer because the giver may feel vulnerable, blamed, or shamed. Or they may feel they deserve to get an apology more than give one.
And, in a litigious environment, offering an apology can feel like a very big risk indeed. During mediation, I’ve had many parties say some version of the following: "I did want to apologize to them months ago, but my attorney told me it would put my assets at risk because it could be taken as acknowledging legal fault." The sad irony is that some of these matters may have escalated precisely because the exchange of apology and forgiveness was prevented.
The act of apology can be more fulfilling and a little less of a quagmire if we can be clearer about the type of apology we seek or offer. Here are four major types:
I’m sorry. I’m at fault. This one’s the big kahuna, the apology that’s usually the most difficult to give and the one that makes us feel most vulnerable. It’s the kind of apology associated with an action that had tragic or predictable consequences.
I’m sorry. I regret it. This is the type of apology I frequently hear requested in my mediation work, and it’s often mistaken for the "I’m at fault" type. People requesting this type of apology are asking the other person to acknowledge the impact of a word or deed-even when that impact wasn’t intended and may have been of benign intent. Examples of regret apologies include, "I’m so sorry my actions had that impact on you. I didn’t understand that until now and I regret that." This is the kind of apology the person in the first paragraph was seeking; she wanted acknowledgement that this had been a time-consuming and frustrating experience for her (though, of course, that’s not quite how she initially said it).
I’m sorry. I sympathize. This type of apology shows compassion, understanding, sympathy or empathy for a situation. "I’m so sorry to hear of your mother’s illness."
I’m sorry. But not really. This, like the apology offered in the first paragraph, is an insincere attempt. Unfortunately, this type tends not to work very well because most people have good sincerity-detectors. And these types of insincere apology can even escalate the situation further. "I’m sorry you feel that way" is this kind of ineffective apology.
As with everything in human communication, timing is everything. The most earnest request for an apology falling on unprepared ears may yield little. And premature or frequent apology-giving may reduce the impact too much. Next time you’re asking for an apology or someone asks you for one, stop for a moment and consider which type will make the most difference for you both.
And the folks in my online mediation? Well, the timing for the apology request wasn’t great, because it sounded to the other person like a threat: "apologize or I won’t sign the agreement we just spent hours and hours creating." And the language in which the request was made suggested to the other person that he was being asked to admit total fault for their real estate problem. Once I was able to re-frame the request as one for an "I regret" type of apology, the gentleman came back with, "Well of course I regret that this got so complicated and I’m sorry for my role in that. I hope she can acknowledge her own role too." And she did.