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Some apologies do not even have to be communicated directly to the other party. I recall one highly emotional employment dispute where the division manager told me during our preliminary telephone communication that he would not even talk with the complaining department manager until that person apologized for the manner in which he had rudely raised the matter at the outset. I then spoke with the department manager who said that he would not meet with the division manager until that person apologized for the way he had initially treated the department manager when he first raised the issue to be resolved. During the first phone call, I asked the division manager whether he valued the department manager's services. He said the department manager was one of his best managers, a person who would be difficult to replace. I then got permission to express this sentiment at the initial joint session. I also asked the department manager during our phone conversation if he liked working for this particular employer. He said he could not imagine a nicer place to work. I got permission from him to disclose his feelings in this regard at the joint session. After I explained the mediation process at the beginning of the joint session, I conveyed the division manager's comments and the department manager's sentiments. Both listened intently. It was as if the air had been released from a large balloon. The emotional baggage was dissipated, and neither asked for an apology. The underlying dispute was resolved in less than twenty minutes!

A few years ago, a police officer was chasing a possible burglary suspect in the early morning hours. The suspect got to a fence, and turned around. The officer apparently thought he might have a handgun, and he shot the suspect to death. It turned out to be a teenager who had not been involved in unlawful behavior. The parents of the deceased teenager brought a wrongful death law suit against the police department. The legal proceedings dragged on for many months. Shortly before the trial, the parents, their attorney, the police officer, and the police department attorney were together at a meeting. The father asked the police officer if he ever thought about their dead son. Since the officer had been advised by the police department lawyer not to talk with the parents of the deceased, this was the first time they had spoken directly to each other. Tears welled up in the officer's eyes, and he said that he thought of their son every single day. He had a son of his own and could not imagine the pain he had caused them. He apologized for what had occurred and indicated that if there were any way he could bring their son back to life he would do so. The parties settled the case that afternoon. The father said they had buried their son many months earlier, but had not had the funeral until that morning's session with the responsible police officer.

Next time you encounter a developing controversy, listen actively to the complaining party's presentation and think of a way to acknowledge that person's stated harm or personal feelings. Indicate how sorry you are for their loss or their negative feelings. This will frequently disarm them and enhance the likelihood of productive problem-solving discussions. On the other hand, a refusal to begin the healing process in such a fashion will probably exacerbate the situation and make the dispute more difficult to resolve.

Some moralists might suggest that an apology is only effective when the person apologizing acknowledges some wrong he or she has committed. I have not found this to be true. A sincere acknowledgement of the other side's loss or emotional feelings can significantly affect the settlement atmosphere. The complaining party feels respected, and they begin to look for constructive ways to resolve the underlying issues. With the emotional baggage diminished, the parties are able to proceed on a more objective and professional basis.

About the Author:

Charles B. Craver is the Freda H. Alverson Professor at the George Washington University Law School. He is the author of Effective Legal Negotiation and Settlement (5th ed. 2005 LEXIS) and The Intelligent Negotiator (2002 Prima/Crown). He is coauthor of Legal Negotiating (2007 Thomson/West) and Alternative Dispute Resolution: The Advocate's Perspective (3d ed. 2006 LEXIS). Over the past thirty years, he has taught negotiation skills to 80,000 lawyers and business people throughout the United States, and in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Austria, England, Germany, and China. He can be reached at ccraver@law.gwu.edu.



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August 2007