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THE POWER OF AN APOLOGY

by Charles B. Craver

When personal or professional disagreements arise between individuals or business partners, emotional considerations can become significant. One or both sides may feel they have been disrespected. The aggrieved parties may have initially sought to resolve the underlying issues in a professional and objective manner, but their efforts in this regard were unsuccessful. The other side may have considered the matter insignificant or thought the other side's complaint had no merit.

After his preliminary overtures were ignored or rejected, the moving party may begin to feel that it was not taken seriously. As he continues to focus on both the underlying issues and the way in which his preliminary efforts were rejected, he may become more emotional. He views the situation as a personal insult, and anger begins to build. Issues that could have been resolved in an amicable manner at the outset become more significant and more personal. Who does the other side think it is responding in such an uncaring fashion?

As the procedural and substantive aspects of this matter fester, the aggrieved party becomes outraged. He wants justice - and respect. He may even seek legal advice regarding the possibility of a law suit. He wants to vanquish the opposing side and vindicate his own perspective. If the other side does not respond quickly and appropriately, protracted legal proceedings may result.

How might this expanding controversy have been resolved expeditiously and effectively at the outset? How might this matter be settled now without further acrimony and expense? When the person with the grievance initially raised the matter, the other side should have patiently listened to that person's complaint. She should have acknowledged that person's feelings, even if she did not agree with what he was seeking. A sincere apology could have assuaged the moving party, even if he did not ultimately obtain the resolution he sought. For example, if that person had suffered an economic or medical loss, the respondent could have indicated how sorry she was for his loss. If the moving party seemed to be emotionally upset regarding this matter, this person could have indicated how sorry she was that he feels the way he does. By acknowledging the emotional feelings of the moving party, this person can often calm him down and begin the healing process.

Even after a disagreement has escalated into a full-blown controversy, an apology can enhance the prospects for an amicable resolution. By acknowledging the loss suffered by the complaining party or her emotional feelings, the responding party can demonstrate his feelings for that person. If the respondent realizes that he or his firm may have behaved improperly, he might even apologize for what was done.

When I mediate employment discrimination disputes, I am amazed how often the claimant desires an apology. In sexual harassment cases, they do not want an apology from the alleged harasser, but an apology from their employer who may not have moved as quickly as they might have to resolve the harassment claim. Employers are often hesitant to apologize, apparently fearing that such a response may expose them to greater liability. I have found the opposite to be true. A sincere apology is likely to disarm the claimant and pave the way for a successful resolution. On the other hand, a refusal to apologize is likely to anger the claimant and enhance the probability of extended litigation.

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August 2007