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How to apologise well – a guest blog from Michael Jacobs

People often arrive in mediation wanting an apology.

They feel unheard, disrespected and treated unfairly. In some way, it matters little whether the other person actually intended to do any of these things. Hurt has been caused; an apology is felt to be due.

Specifics range from:
• “I feel totally ignored and excluded.”
• “I feel like you treat me like some kind of child.”
• “I feel you don’t trust anything I do and constantly undermine my decisions.”
• “Nothing I want seems to matter. All you care about is you!”
• “I can’t believe you won’t even try and be civil about this. I’m so upset.”

So why is it when the aggrieved party hears “I’m sorry that you feel like that…” it makes so little difference?

If anything it often makes the situation worse. Despite the presence of the word “sorry” the one looking for an apology denies that an apology has been offered.

The apologiser is now confused. From their perspective they’ve expressed sorrow and regret for the way the other person is feeling. They are sympathising with the other’s pain and distress. They are showing that they care. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, their efforts are dismissed as not good enough.

And very quickly their tone changes. Having begun with a degree of compassion, they now begin to get irritable and angry. Their suspicion grows that the ‘victim’ doesn’t want an apology, that they are only interested in getting their pound of flesh. “What more do you want – I’ve said I‘m sorry! Do you want me to get down on my knees?”

Now it’s the other person’s turn to get angry. They hurl back, “I want a real apology – that’s not a real apology!” Icy stares are exchanged. Fingers pointed, voices raised. And we are moments away from an emotional meltdown.

So what makes the difference between a ‘real’ apology and the ersatz one?

The difference involves the quality of repentance. To repent is to turn towards oneself. To take ownership of one’s actions. The problem with offering sympathy for the upset is that it leaves oneself out of the loop. It is precisely this absence that is so keenly felt.

This attitude is reflected in the language used. There is a real reluctance to adopt a relational frame, to step fully into the picture:
• “There’s no reason for you to get so upset.”
• “That wasn’t ever my intention. You’ve got it all wrong,”
• “I was only doing my job. It wasn’t anything personal.”

At best, the aim of sympathy is to close down conversation.

Once expressed, there is nothing else to say. One has tried to soothe hurt feelings, to make things better. Having done so, there is the expectation that things should now get back to normal. The incident is closed and need not be referred to again.

Faced with an accusation of having inflicted hurt and pain, few of us feel comfortable

The desire to move on, without ever having actually ‘shown-up’ is understandable. Faced with an accusation of having inflicted hurt and pain, few of us feel comfortable, especially if we never intended any of this in the first place. Underneath our reluctance is the fear that any admission of responsibility will incur punishment and blame. To avoid the ‘blame game’ we adopt a kind of legalistic thinking. If it is the case that one is being accused of wrongdoing – then the only sensible response is to plead not guilty. “Of course I was in the vicinity your honour, but I never had the slightest motivation to commit any crime…”

Only repentance isn’t about accusation and blame

Repentance is about admitting to imperfection, of having something considerably less than perfect knowledge. It invites a fuller stepping into the messiness of the human condition. A space in which our actions, more often than not, have unexpected consequences.

Having done a handful of doctor/patient mediations, what struck me was the capacity for some doctors to convey repentance – to acknowledge their limitations and the terrible consequences that sometimes arise precisely because they are just human. These cases usually settled. Those doctors who mouthed an apology for the pain and suffering either the patient or family had undergone – without including their part in the proceedings – invariably went on to tribunal.

Each of our steps – the ones we take and those we don’t – bear us towards responsibility and consequences.

I may not have wished or wanted what happened, but I can’t deny my part. I was there. I stepped. What needs to be said and what needs to be heard is that pain was caused. Without this acknowledgement, this acceptance, we try to leave responsibility behind. Only we can’t. Not now, not ever.

Repentance isn’t interested in apportioning blame. Blame is a label, it isn’t a conversation. Mediation is a mode of conversation, some of them about very difficult and painful things. The context of these conversations is a relational world, where individuals are invited to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Fundamentally, an apology is an admission that there is still more to learn

That we have not yet fully understood how we are connected. As in any lesson, we can only start from where we currently are – which in this case entails seeing the impact of our thoughts, feelings and actions. That these moments often correlate with another’s pain and suffering makes it harder to just ignore or pretend. And in educational terms, that has to be a good thing.

For mediators, the challenge is to help parties understand that apologies aren’t about the apportioning of guilt, but the need for more engaged conversations. Where pain is the clearest marker of misunderstanding and unawareness. That to apologise is simply to say that there is yet more to learn – both about the other and about oneself.

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