“I’m Sorry” – Does it Calm the Waters or Fan the Flames?

I had already decided to blog on apologies when this headline jumped out at me over breakfast. The newspaper article referred to a high-profile case in which Robert Picton was convicted of murdering numerous sex-trade workers in the Vancouver area in the late 1990’s. Both local police and the RCMP (Canada’s national police force) were criticized for failing to communicate and for not giving the investigation the priority it deserved. The RCMP eventually apologized for its handling of the matter. The newspaper article highlighted the value (and potential misuse) of an apology.

There are apologies and then there are apologies. In her 2011 workshop at the Northwest Dispute Resolution Conference entitled “The Art and Science of Apology”, preeminent mediator Nina Meierding outlined different types of apology:

A partial and insincere apology, such as “I’m sorry if any of my actions offended anyone.” This can easily be interpreted as “I didn’t do anything wrong, but I regret that you are so sensitive.” In conflict this type of apology will usually inflame the situation rather than diffuse it.

A partial apology, such as “I’m sorry you are in such pain”. While this type of apology expresses caring for the other person, it does not accept responsibility for causing the pain or regret for the actions which caused the pain.

A full apology, which acknowledges fault and is often offered with a promise not to repeat the behaviour in question and with an offer of restitution. This is often referred to as a “perfect apology”, as outlined below. This type of apology can be a powerful factor in defusing and healing conflict.

The website www.perfect.apology.com lists the elements of a full apology:

  • a detailed account of the situation
  • acknowledgement of the hurt or damage done
  • taking responsibility for the situation
  • recognition of your role in the event
  • a statement of regret
  • asking for forgiveness
  • a promise that it won’t happen again
  • a form of restitution whenever possible

Contrast the following two examples. The first was issued by Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson after it was discovered he had misrepresented his academic credentials in his resume:

“I want you to know how deeply I regret how this issue has affected the company and all of you,” Thompson wrote in his first extended memo to employees since the disclosures emerged on May 3. “We have all been working very hard to move the company forward and this has had the opposite effect. For that, I take full responsibility, and I want to apologize to you.”

What did he regret? That he padded his resume, that he got caught, or that getting caught affected the company? Are you left with any sense that he has learned anything or would not repeat the unethical behaviour?

The second apology was issued by the Government of Canada in response to the abuses suffered by First Nations children and families as a result of residential schools:

To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.  We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you.  Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry.

This exert contains most of the elements of the “perfect apology” and was a significant step in the healing and restitution process.

Returning to the headline referencing the RCMP apology, we can now see the significance of including “we could have done more” in the apology. Its removal would have simply been an additional affront.

With apologies, as with many other tools of conflict resolution, our intention speaks louder than our words.

About Gary Harper, The Joy of Conflict Resolution

Gary Harper is the principal of Harper and Associates. He is a trainer, writer and facilitator who specializes in conflict resolution. Through his unique blend of experience as a personal injury lawyer, general manager, insurance regulator and retail store owner, he learned the value of clear communication and conflict resolution skills. Since 1991 he has trained and mediated in a wide variety of organizations - from health care to the film industry to many levels of government. He is a member of the instructional team of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of B. C. and recently authored The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home.
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One Response to “I’m Sorry” – Does it Calm the Waters or Fan the Flames?

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