Not long ago, I sought a public apology from a co-worker for publicly attacking my reputation. Some of my work takes me into a highly political environment. I shouldn’t be surprised by personal attacks when power and politics are in play. But I was. I was also furious. And hurt.
“I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt,” said the co-worker. “That wasn’t my intention.”
Non-apology. I swore quietly to myself. Then I thanked him. And let it go. It was clear there would be nothing real. And there was a room full of people staring uncomfortably at their shoes. The anger and hurt have not gone away.
I was thinking about that when I facilitated a course in mediation this week. In the back of the participants’ workbook is an article called, “What it Means to be Sorry: The Power of Apology in Mediation”. The article is written by Carl D. Schneider, a psychologist and expert in family mediation. When I’ve taught this course in the past, I’ve pointed out the article and suggested that it was worth reading. This time, I decided that wasn’t enough. I assigned the article (13 pages of fairly small type) as homework.
“Just read it,” I said, “and be prepared to discuss.”
Groans and eye-rolling ensued. It should be noted that this is a union education course using a popular education approach. It’s experiential, filled with activity, role-play, lots of discussion and interaction. The days are long and intense and participants generally aren’t used to getting homework. So the groans weren’t unexpected. Still, they did the reading.
We began our day seated in a circle. Talked about the day ahead. Made space for questions, comments, epiphanies that occurred overnight. And then we began to talk about apology.
“What makes an apology real?” I asked.
The consensus? It must be honest. It must be felt. No excuses or explanations. And nothing expected in return. Schneider tells us that
“originally, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us ‘apology’ meant a defense, a justification, an excuse. Its modern usage has shifted to mean ‘to acknowledge and express regret for a fault without defense.'”
People talked about non-apologies. Clinton’s attempt to apologize for his philandering. Nixon’s attempt to apologize for, well, everything. The “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology. That got a lot of heads nodding. Then someone wondered why apology is so difficult.
Simple, really. There’s risk in true apology. Power shifts.
“More than anything else, it is vulnerability that colors apology.”
“Don’t apology and punishment go together?” said one. “If I apologize, I’m admitting I did something wrong and if I did something wrong, I will be punished for it.”
It’s human nature, I suppose, to fear retribution when admitting wrong. Yet when we’ve done someone wrong, isn’t admitting it the right thing to do? One could argue that an apology has a way of equalizing power and creating respect for the person with the courage to do so. That prompted more debate.
“If I am mediating a conflict, why would I tell someone who has done something wrong that I know he or she is a good person and an apology will enhance that? Why should their reputation be enhanced for apologizing for doing something wrong? ”
We talked about how, in mediation, creating conditions to allow for an apology to occur without losing face might be appropriate. When people are backed into a corner and feel pressured to apologize, it’s unlikely the apology will be forthcoming. Says Schneider
“An apology may be just a brief moment in mediation. Yet it is often the margin of difference, however slight, that allows parties to settle.”
“What about apology and forgiveness?” said another. “I think they go hand in hand.”
“I can’t agree. Two separate things,” replied a First Nations participant. “An apology is a start. But there are wrongs that have been done that I’m not ready to forgive.”
So if there’s an expectation that apology will automatically bring forgiveness, doesn’t that suggest a condition on apology? In which case, are we back to non-apology?
A non-apology says more about the person not apologizing. On one hand, it adds to the grievance. On the other, a public non-apology might also bring a kind of contempt upon the person giving it. A tiny bit of revenge perhaps? And while sweet, not part of any real healing.
What I do know is that with real apology, there may be real forgiveness. It can be a turning point. Liberating. Another writer, Nic Tavuchis, says
“An apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done. And yet, in a mysterious way and according to its own logic, this is precisely what it manages to do.”
As a union rep, I’ve listened to many stories from co-workers about poor treatment at the hands of a manager or supervisor. “If only they would apologize for what they’ve done to me, I could get past this. I just need to hear them say they’re sorry.” When the apology doesn’t happen, grievance and arbitration aren’t far away.
There was much more said. And much more to say. Next time I teach the course, I plan to build in more space for this discussion. It was powerful. Important. For some, one of the most meaningful pieces of the entire four days.
So what did I learn? Can I forgive the slight done to me? Perhaps. But not yet. I suspect that if and when I let it go for good, it won’t be thanks to the power of an apology. But rather to a recognition that it’s simply time to move on.