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This article will discuss the importance of an apology in conflict resolution, in particular during the mediation process. It outlines the different interpretations held for what an apology is, whether or not to use it as a technique, and assessing whether or not it will help.
Mediation regularly involves disputes in which one party feels injured by the other. The apology is an act that is neither about problem-solving or negotiation nor about arbitration. Rather, it is a form of ritual exchange between both parties, where words are said that allow reconciliation. In transformative mediation, the apology represents an opportunity for acknowledgement that may transform relations.
For some people, it may be crucial to receive an apology from those who have offended them, especially after uncivil comments.
A sincere apology is often the key to the resolution of a conflict : an apology is a symbol of forgiveness.
What is an apology
Perception of apologies varies from one individual to the next, based mainly on childhood experiences.
Many people believe that to give an apology is to accept blame and to make an admission of having made a mistake or error of judgement. Most of such individuals give apologies rarely, and when they do, it is early in a conflict where objective facts make it difficult for them to deny culpability.
Others believe an apology is an expression of emotional acceptance and understanding of the (possibly minor or unavoidable) role they played in the misfortunes of another. These people will give an apology when their actions have hurt another person or a community even though they believe their actions were appropriate. The harm may have been inadvertent or may have been unavoidable. The apology is the expression of regret at having caused trouble for someone.
Still others will offer an apology or expression of sorrow to show that they share, at an emotional level, care, sympathy and concern for the hurt person or community. Such an expression of sympathy has nothing to do with culpability whatsoever.
Request for an apology
Why do people request apologies?
People who have been hurt or humiliated often hope for an apology.
They may hope that an apology from the offender will restore trust, dignity, and, perhaps, a sense of justice.
Indeed, a thoughtful apology is a powerful means of indicating self-awareness and of showing respect for the person who was offended.
However, apologies are sometimes demanded as a closing gambit in a conflict. The demand is made by those who perceive themselves to be in a position of greater power, and is often a precondition for reconciliation steps of some kind. There are two main motivations. One is to gain a tacit acknowledgement of the power one party has over the other.
The other is to force the weaker party to accept responsibility for the conflict in the hope of preventing a repeat occurrence.
Key factors to consider
Key factors to consider in requesting an apology are essentially related to authority, culture, gender and age differences.
It is often unlikely a person holding an authority will apologize to a subordinate.
It is often unlikely a parent will apologise to a child, and frequent that elders request apology but do not feel they should offer any.
Socially speaking, it is more frequent that a woman introduce "I am sorry" in a discussion, while it is more frequent that men consider apologizing as a sign of weakness.
Finally, in some cultures, apologies are seen from different perspectives. In some, people will be more likely to express their contrition—it may be an important adversarial point—while in others, people will more easily accuse another one rather than losing face in apologizing.
Which elements should be included in an apology
We already mentioned
- the importance of the apology being perceived honest and sincere
- the importance of defining exactly for what behavior the person is apologizing
So, the elements that should be included are the following ones :
A specific statement of what was done
It is essential to clarify the nature of the offense to avoid misunderstanding. Usually, the need for an apology arises when two people do not share the same perspective, either constantly or at the time of the conflict. It may be on purpose or without any specific intent. It is necessary to seek common understanding of what was perceived rude or wrongful, either as an action, or as an non-action. A mediator may help to define the offense.
Recognition of responsibility
Recognition of responsibility and accountability from the offender is perhaps the single most important point of the apology. Of course, offenders may apologise because they realise they made a mistake, but some people just refuse to admit they have. It is probably best, in this case, that offenders limit themselves to recognising what they did, indicate that they thought it the best thing to do (alternatively, explain that the action was within rules or admitted guidelines), and explain that they did not imagine the possible outcome of their actions or inactions. Most offended people will appreciate the efforts made by the offender to explore how one might have anticipated the outcome. This will often be perceived as an indication of sincerity of regret for the outcome.
Acknowledgment of the pain or embarrassment
It is often appropriate to express a non-judgmental expression of empathy toward the one offended. The offender may perhaps be able to identify with the one offended.
- For example. During an edit war, User A claims user B is a fascist. As a consequence, the conflict escalates between them. During the conflict resolution process, User A may say to User B "I understand your reaction after I told you you were a fascist. If someone had called me a fascist, I would not have found it funny either."
The acknowledgement should not be judgemental, as it would undermine the sincerity of the apology.
- Examples of what to avoid saying, "I'm sorry you're so impatient" or "It's too bad you have no sense of humor."
Acknowledging the wrongdoing
A judgment about the offense, when the offender agrees what one did wrong, it is important that one tries to state so.
- For example, saying "I was insensitive." or "I was wrong." may help.
When the offender takes full responsibility for one's wrongdoing, a simple statement saying "I am sorry." may help build the trust. This is particularly true if there is a story of good relationship with the offender; In most cases however, it will be insufficient.
In real life, apology may be offered when no future interaction is planned. Case closed.
In other cases, such as on Wikipedia, there is every chance that further interaction occur, and the offended may appreciate to know whether the offender intend to self-restrain oneself from recurrence of the offense. It is helpful to discuss how the offender intends to behave in the future. Without any apology given, a promise to try one's best not to repeat the offense will be very helpful to fix the conflict.
- For example, when an editor has made comments over the poor spelling of another editor, one may (without expressing regrets for having voiced an opinion one believes had to be voiced) promises to avoid making such comments in the future.
How may mediators help ?
Apologies can take many different forms. It is the role of the mediator to help the parties identify what they really want, to facilitate one-way or reciprocal apologies.
Two cases are possible.
Case 1, one of the disputants requests (or even demands) apology from the other editor
Case 2, during or at the end of mediation process, the mediator may suggest that the disputants find common ground for an apology.
Request of an apology from one disputant
The mediator may help both parties define what they exactly want as an apology, what it means to them.
- is it a step toward reconciliation—i.e., willingness to settle a conflict, and be in good terms again?
- is it a confirmation that the other party was to blame ?
- is it an assurance that the other party will not repeat the offense ?
- is it meant to be a humiliation to the alleged offender ?
- is it meant to restore reputation of the person hurt? (In this case, the apology should be public.)
- or is it meant to open a way to discussion and improved mutual understanding and trust? (In this case, the apology can be private.)
The mediator suggests disputants to apologise to one another
- "In this paper we investigate perpetrator’s willingness to apologize for a trust violation in a bargaining setting." Joost M. Leunissen, David De Cremer, Christopher P. Reinders Folmer, An instrumental perspective on apologizing in bargaining: The importance of forgiveness to apologize, Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 33, Issue 1, February 2012, Pages 215-222, ISSN 0167-4870, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.joep.2011.10.004.