April 2, 2023
Admitting fault can be difficult, especially during a conflict. But what is it about saying “I’m sorry” that makes apologizing so hard to do? This blog will explore the components of a good apology, before addressing the role of apologies during a mediated dispute.
The Elements of a Good Apology
In 1991, a sociologist theorized that at its core, an authentic apology only has two constitutive elements: “the offender has to be sorry and has to say so.” In the decades since, scholars studying philosophy, business, communications, and law have put their own spin on these two basic elements, adding ever more complexity to the component parts of an authentic apology. Bringing these various theories together with experience gained through the Osgoode Mediation Clinic, I suggest that there are three absolutely essential ingredients to a good apology. This is in no way an exhaustive list, but at a base level, these three components are a good starting point when formulating an apology.
Step One: Acknowledging the Wrong
For an apology to be genuine, much of the work must be done upfront by the person crafting it. First and foremost, the apologizer must fully and accurately acknowledge the extent of the injury they caused to the other party. The apologizer must acknowledge: a) who was injured; b) what actions actually caused the injury; and c) what it is about the actions that were injurious. Only by fully understanding and articulating these root causes of the injury, can an apology begin to take shape.
Step Two: Show Genuine Emotion
Many of the theorists reviewed for this blog explore the role of specific emotions like sorrow, shame, embarrassment, regret, and remorse in formulating a sincere apology. While each emotion can certainly play a role, the efficacy of expressing shame versus regret will usually depend on the circumstances surrounding the conflict. That said, what is most important, and remains consistent across all contexts, is that the emotion being expressed must be genuinely felt by the apologizer. Without some genuine expression of emotion, an apology will quickly be perceived as robotic, or insincere.
Step Three: A plan to right the wrong
Some theorists argue that this element strays beyond apology into the realm of conflict resolution. However, a concrete plan goes a long way to demonstrate the apologizer’s intention to make things right by reassuring the injured party that the apology is indeed genuine. Mediators are ideally positioned to help facilitate this component through the dispute resolution process.
Apologies During Mediation
Not all disputes require an apology to be resolved. For example, consider a situation where the sole interest of all parties involved is some form of monetary damages. In these instances, apologies may serve little to no purpose, as disputants attempt to negotiate an acceptable amount of compensation to resolve their conflict.
However, when personal or familial relationships have been damaged by conflict, a genuine apology can be transformative. In these situations, where emotional interests are at play, mediators can play a coaching role in helping the parties to articulate their apology. However, a word of caution: my experience at the Osgoode Mediation Clinic has taught me that mediators should refrain from directly encouraging parties to make an apology, because this may be perceived as disingenuous or a breach of the mediator’s neutrality. However, when a mediator detects that a party wants to apologize, they are well positioned to coach the party through it and help them craft a sincere apology that can help move the parties towards resolution.
Per step one, this work begins by helping the parties uncover and clearly articulate the issues and underlying interests at play in a conflict. Through active listening techniques like summarizing and reframing, the mediator can help the apologizer understand the specifics of the injury that led to the dispute. Is the apologizer sorry for breaking the vase? Or, are they sorry for breaking the vase because they now understand that it was an irreplaceable family heirloom that had great emotional significance to the other party? By helping parties come to a clear and specific articulation of the injury, mediators can then move to step two and use open-ended questions to help both the apologizer and the injured party describe and understand the difficult emotions they are processing – shame, anger, remorse, regret, etc.
If steps one and two can be satisfied, and both parties accept the apology as genuine, mediators can play a central role in helping the parties through step 3: crafting a plan to right the wrong. After all, the mediator’s primary role during the dispute resolution process is to facilitate the creative problem solving needed to reach an agreement. With support from the mediator, an apologizer has every chance of crafting a plan to right the wrong that will satisfy the injured party’s interests. In this way mediators can act as facilitators, or coaches, to the apology process, helping parties reach durable agreements to resolve their dispute.
 Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991) at 36.
 Nick Smith, I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) at 140-142.
 John Kador, Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, And Restoring Trust (Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 2009) at 47.
 William L. Benoit, Accounts, Excuses and Apologies: A Theory of Image Restoration Strategies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
 Frank Gomberg, Apology for the Unexpected Death of a Child in a Health Care Facility (LL.M. Alternative Dispute Resolution, Osgoode Hall Law School, 2011) at 11. Online: Gomberg Mediation Solutions, <https://www.gombergmediation.com/site/gomberg_mediation_solutions/assets/pdf/apologyfortheunexpecteddeath_frankgomberg.pdf> .
 Aaron Lazare, On Apology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) at 35.
 Supra note 1 & note 6.
 Supra note 1.
 Supra note 2, note 4 & note 6.
 Supra note 6.