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The Power of Sorry - What Makes a Real Apology

real apologyBrent, I have some follow-on thoughts to our discussion about the power of an apology. When a situation has gotten to the point where we might consider an organizational apology,1 we can assume a person has been hurt, relationships have been broken, and there could be legal liability. 

Restoring the relationship takes action from both sides. One side apologizes and the other side forgives. Forgiving alone does not restore broken relationships. Neither does apologizing alone. Restoring relationship requires both sides to value the relationship enough to face and overcome their respective pain from either causing or enduring the offense. If the offended side refuses to forgive, or if the offending side refuses to apologize, then the relationship remains broken.

Someone has to take the first step. Forgiving first takes courage because the other side might never apologize. In that case, the offended people must protect themselves from being hurt again. Apologizing first takes courage because the other side might never forgive. In that case, the people who are admitting liability must protect themselves from retribution.  

Forgiveness is usually easier after an apology. And as we’ve discussed, an apology could either aggravate or defuse legal liability, depending on the situation.

Let’s think about what an apology would look like. Some apologies are spurious. We’ve all met people who snap, “I said I was sorry!” and consider the whole incident to be erased, never to be spoken of again. I bet you’ve done some marriage counseling around that very issue.

In the context of an offense by an organization, here is what I think the victims mean by “sorry.” First, they want to see that that the organization has put in place something to prevent the bad thing from happening again. Whether this is fixing the staircase or getting good background screening for workers, steps for prevention say that the organization really does care about Protection.

Second, if there was someone at fault, they want to see that person disciplined. They want the careless person trained. They want the harasser to receive at least a warning and training. They want the abuser dismissed. They want the jerk held accountable by his supervisors or peers. This says the organization cares about Justice. 

Third, they want the harm repaired to the extent possible. They want the medical bills paid, the dents pounded out, or the broken window replaced. This shows the organization cares about Restoration.

Finally, and not least important, they want to hear, from a sufficiently important person, the words, “I’m sorry.” This shows the organization cares about Reconciliation.

People file lawsuits because they need something. Lawsuits are painful, embarrassing, and expensive (even plaintiffs pay costs), so something powerful has to drive them. They may want other people protected. They may want justice. They may have losses that need to be repaired. When you file a lawsuit, you are giving up on Reconciliation.  In its place, a lawsuit may be a way to achieve Revenge. The power of Sorry, when done right, is that it can meet the first three needs and take you to Reconciliation rather than Revenge. So you don’t need the lawsuit.

I’d be interested to hear more about how you’ve seen this work out in your psychological practice.


1With the help of your legal counsel, who will help you consider potential liability (I know, I know, it’s an occupational hazard.)


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