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The Power of Sorry - Apologies, Legal Liability, Litigation, and the Kingdom of Heaven

apologizingWhy must organizations avoid apologizing?

Brent, this is a terrific question! I love it because it gets deep into the core question of what law is supposed to do. I believe that a law is one tool to pursue wholeness, completeness, or maturity.  This is a philosophy we share, because each of us uses our respective discipline to help clients move in that direction.

So—a good legal advisor will not just say, “Don’t ever apologize, because you could be legally liable.” Of course, that is strictly true in one sense, because the only place that “apology” discussions are legally protected is in settlement negotiations—already pretty far down the road in litigation. But this approach shows a limited perspective.

Law, like psychology, is often about human conflict. Here you are giving me a hypothetical (lawyers adore hypotheticals) where someone in the organization has done something bad/dumb/stupid/wrong, which has hurt someone. 

The answer is not necessarily simple, which is why mission leaders must consider, and a good legal advisor should bring to the table, not only a knowledge of the law, but spiritual and emotional truth and good common sense.

First, the truth tends to set us free. As you point out, hurt people often blossom and move on when there is an apology and genuine caring about their pain. Admitting some kind of wrong could trigger a lawsuit, but it could also defuse one. In medical malpractice for instance, doctors with a warm relationship with their patients, and who are willing to say they are sorry for a mistake, tend to get sued less.  

An important caveat here is that the organization should never admit more than the truth. For instance, if an individual did a wrong without the organization’s knowledge, the organization has no reason to admit fault, but only to say, “I am so very sorry this happened to you, and we are taking steps to make sure it will not happen to anyone else.” And there are times when it would not be wise to apologize because of liability issues, and that needs to be thought through carefully.

Here’s another point. Litigation is designed, in its own complex, painful, and outrageously expensive way, to get at the truth. If the wrong happened, in the logic of litigation, there should be some kind of restoration. But isn’t it also true that in the logic of the Kingdom of Heaven, there should be some kind of restoration?

Almost the only restoration a lawsuit can give a person is money. Money becomes a marker or stand-in for the person’s pain. The legal system does not heal, and cannot by its nature. In fact, litigation inflicts further damage on everyone involved and increases bitterness. So that is a bad approach for people who want to be healed.

How much better if the organization can work with the person to provide some kind of restoration, maybe including an apology, therapy, or other ways to help the person! This approach has been used in powerful ways in some settings. For instance, in some religious organizations, a specially appointed team listens to stories of child sexual abuse and then helps to create a healing response, often including an apology from the leadership. Where people have gone this route, it has proven better for all than the bitterness of litigation.

As we advise our clients, there is often no fool-proof answer, but we must seek solutions that will bring wholeness and healing to complex problems.

 

Disclaimer: not official legal or psychological advice or opinion

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