I Am Sorry

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

     ”I am sorry.” These are three simple words but are often the most difficult to say, especially in the midst of a conflict that has led to a lawsuit. During a mediation, I sometimes think it is easier to move heaven and earth than to get one party to say these simple words to the other.

       Why? Probably because in our litigation oriented society, to say these simple words means the speaker is accepting responsibility for all of the consequences of her actions – monetary and non-monetary. In effect, it is an admission of responsibility that makes the speaker vulnerable in all ways imaginable: these simple words can have huge negative (and positive) 

       Yet, they are the very words that most people want to hear. One study has shown that when someone offers these three simple words, along with a possible resolution, that offer is accepted 73% of the time. Even in the situation where the “fault” lies partially with all parties involved, the suggested resolution is accepted much more frequently when attached to an “I’m sorry.”

       I came upon these common sense pearls of wisdom in an e-mail from Maria Simpson of Personal Skills Management in which she discusses Nina Meierding’s recent program on “The Art and Science of the Apology.” (two )   

       Evidently (and according to Ms. Meierding), in western societies, there are different types of apologies. First and foremost, there is the simple, full apology: “I’m sorry. It’s my fault” in which no excuses or explanations are attached. The speaker takes full responsibility without making any excuses.

      A second type of apology is a “partial” apology in which the speaker apologizes for how the listener feels but not for what happened: “I’m sorry you are so hurt.” Obviously, if the speaker is the one who “caused” the hurt, this type of apology will not satisfy the listener. However, if the speaker is a bystander, then this show of emotional support may help the situation or at least tell the listener that someone else does care about the situation.

       Finally – there is the kind of apology that we all dislike – the phony kind. It is the one that does not accept responsibility, is insincere and is often said to comply with political correctness or etiquette. Recent examples are the apologies made by the Wall Street CEOs during the last few weeks: the CEOs apologized without any intention of accepting responsibility or blame, without any intention of not doing it again if given the opportunity, but with the claim that the CEO or the situation was misunderstood and finally, purely and simply because it was the “politically correct” thing to do; public outcry (if not Congress) was forcing the CEOs to say “something.”
 Apologies are important. A simple “I’m sorry” without any excuses or explanations goes a long way towards erasing the tension in the room and between the parties. Recognizing that a simple “I’m sorry” does wonders for resolving conflicts and disputes, 29 states, including California, have enacted “safe harbor” laws which prevent apologies from being used against the speaker in certain situations.

       So. . . the next time you find yourself in a dispute which you may have created by your act or omission, think about having the courage to acknowledge your responsibility by saying three simple words: “I am sorry.” More times than not, this will end the dispute, as most people do want to move on with their lives and not dwell on the negative. All they want is an acknowledgment of full responsibility; not punitive damages.

       . . . 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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