The Diminishing Value of Apology: Changing the Script of Conflict Resolution

Fran S.

Fran S.

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“I am sorry. What I did is wrong. I take full responsibility.”

These words have been echoing through the media as one public figure after another goes through the now-ritualized public apology, often for behavior that might, in a previous time, been deemed private. The statements more often than not lack authenticity, as though pulled from a grand script of remorse, as though the words somehow will move forgiveness forward, as though they are the formula to exoneration. The more these words are uttered, the more cliche they become, and the less value they are likely to have in bringing about true resolution of the problems being apologized for.

Workplace apologies are needed. In years past, people whose work life had been disrupted by the misconduct of others were often looking to regain what they’d had before the misconduct. “I just want things to go back the way they were,” was a familiar plea by those who’d been wronged by others. In those cases, the remedy was sometimes a facilitated dialogue and a sincere apology, and, with managerial fingers crossed, life could possibly go back to normal with proper monitoring and coaching.

Using informal conflict resolution is not as simple anymore. Defenses are high, organizations full of worry about the consequences if the informal process fails. Apologies now are “admissions against interest,” as we strive to stay out of harm’s way. Facilitated discussions between the party feeling wronged and the alleged wrongdoer are dismissed as being potentially retaliatory. It is hard these days to find ways to make peace in the workplace, but even when there is a will to take the risk and a process that preserves safety and dignity, I find there is a new obstacle; when it comes time for someone to take ownership of the behavior, to demonstrate a sense of responsibility, to begin a process of interpersonal reconciliation, the words one might use seem…worn. “I take full responsibility. I apologize,” now sounds far too familiar, and thus, insincere.

So, if the traditional language of apology does not work, how are those of us attempting to facilitate conflict resolution to guide our parties? In my experience, the hurt person does not so much need or want, in this day of cheapened apology, to hear the words as to experience true empathy. Statements that focus on the impact of what has transpired, how the harmed party experienced the problem, what has been learned and what will change go far further than the tired, standard language.

To bring about successful resolution between groups or parties, to begin to close the door on hurt or disruption, it is helpful to try this exercise with one or both parties, depending on the underlying situation;

“Sit down and think through what you have learned from listening to and speaking with the other party. Put yourself in their shoes. What would you need to hear to be confident that life can get to a “new normal?” Now answer these questions:

1. What was it that the other party experienced and why was it a problem?

2. What impact do you understand the situation or behavior had on them physically, psychologically, or emotionally?

3. What have you learned about the behavior/language/communications/boundary issues that led to this situation?

4. What will you do differently in the future?

5. How would you like to move forward with the other party? What positive thing do you wish for them?

The words are then shared with the other party.

The power of watching people in conflict name the feelings and realities of the other is astonishing. In the place of an offer of apology comes an offer of transformation. Without being trite, it communicates, “I understand. I own it. I will change.” This, of course, is much harder to execute than a requirement that one stand and recite a script, but it is, too a much more authentic and powerful way to promote healing.

And in time, perhaps, forgiveness…not because there has been an apology, but because there has been a new start.


Fran S.

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