On Apologies…. Once Again!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Several times in the past, I have written on the power of an apology, including the right and wrong way to do it. When I saw an article by Jane Brody (entitled, “The Right Way to Say, ‘I’m Sorry’) in the New York Times (January 31, 2017) discussing this topic, I could not let the opportunity slip by.

As in all other articles on the subject, Ms. Brody emphasizes that to be effective, an apology must be sincere. If poorly worded, an apology can only exacerbate the situation rather than ease the hurt and pain caused by the initial faux pas. (Id.) For example, to say “I am sorry” and then add a “but” or some excuse or rationalization will only make matters worse. A short and simple “I am sorry” without an excuse is what is needed.  Adding any more will detract from the message and backfire.  (Id.)

Quoting Dr. Harriet Lerner, a psychologist and author of a new book on the topic, Why Won’t You Apologize, Ms. Brody notes that a request for forgiveness should NOT be part of the apology. While the offended party may be willing to accept the apology, she may not be ready to forgive, just yet; time may be needed for this to occur.  Evidently, Dr. Lerner, unlike other authors on this topic, does not view a failure to forgive as harmful to our health. That is, it is okay to accept an apology and still be unforgiving.  (I am not sure that I agree with this one!)

Ms. Brody makes another obvious point. To say “I am sorry you feel that way” etc. is NOT an apology as it shifts the focus away from what you allegedly did wrong to the person who was supposedly the victim of your wrong. In truth, it is essentially saying that you are not sorry at all for what you did. (Id.)

So… why do many folks find it hard to apologize. Dr. Lerner has the answer:

   … “humans are hard-wired for defensiveness. It’s very difficult to take direct, unequivocal responsibility for our hurtful actions. It takes a great deal of maturity to put a relationship or another person before our need to be right.”

 Offering an apology is an admission of guilt that admittedly leaves people vulnerable. There’s no guarantee as to how it will be received. It is the prerogative of the injured party to reject an apology, even when sincerely offered. The person may feel the offense was so enormous — for example, having been sexually abused by a parent — that it is impossible to accept a mea culpa offered by the abusive parent years later. (Id.)

In connection with making a sincere apology, Dr. Lerner suggests that the apologizer use ‘nondefenseive listening’:

“Nondefensive listening [to the hurt party] is at the heart of offering a sincere apology.” She urges the listener not to “interrupt, argue, refute, or correct facts, or bring up your own criticisms and complaints.” Even when the offended party is largely at fault, she suggests apologizing for one’s own part in the incident, however small it may be. (Id.)

   In sum, a successful apology is one that is sincere, simple, with no excuses or rationalizations directed at the alleged wrong and not towards the feelings or beliefs of the wronged party. It is neither defensive nor designed to sidestep the true issue–that you have offended the other person.

If done correctly, an apology should make you feel a whole lot better– both physically and emotionally. As Ms. Brody points out, not only is it a gift to the person wronged, it is, in effect, a gift to yourself as it is a means to letting go of a whole lot of unhealthy emotions.

… And it is a great way to settle disputes. I have seen its value many times during a mediation. A simple “I’m sorry” has worked wonders that money could never achieve.

…. 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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