Monday, May 5, 2008

The Healing Power of Apology

Psychiatrist Aaron Lazare, author of the definitive study "On Apology," defines an effective apology as "the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended." It is a tool that can serve mediation participants well, and one that effective mediators should consider in the pursuit of resolution.

What constitutes an effective apology?

Beverly Engel's landmark book "Power of Apology" instructs that a meaningful apology must communicate the three R's: regret, responsibility and remedy. First, you must demonstrate that you recognize that your action (or inaction) caused harm, intentionally or not, and express empathy along with your acknowledgement of the injustice you caused. Second, accept blame, without excuses. Third, offer restitution, or at least a promise to not repeat the harm. "Unless all three of these elements are present," she writes, "the other person will sense that something is missing in your apology and he or she may feel shortchanged."

Psychologist Carl Schneider, a prominent divorce mediator in Maryland, believes, "Apology is central to mediation: mediation regularly involves disputes in which one party feels injured by the other. An apology is an act that is neither about problem-solving or negotiation. Rather, it is a form of ritual exchange where words are spoken that may enable closure. In the language of transformative mediation, apology represents an opportunity for acknowledgement that may transform relations. Most of us recognize its role in victim-offender mediation and community conferencing, but it can play an equally critical role in other forms of mediation, including employment and divorce mediation."

The mediator's role, Schneider argues, is to help people "get past the defensiveness and fear of blame that preclude apology. Apology can not be imposed. Parties often need preparation and help with the words." It is a task made harder by the nature of our jurisprudence system, which instills a real fear of admitting culpability: "The adversary system breeds defensiveness; apology requires vulnerability." He notes that we would do well to adopt aspects of the Japanese legal system, in which "apology plays a major role as a social restorative mechanism."

Lazare's "On Apology" includes fascinating historic examples of potent apologies that shaped and changed the destinies of entire nations. They serve as formidable guidelines for those of us who daily witness and attempt to repair the rifts of conflict.

He writes: "An apology heals because it allows the offending party to:

1 ...Maintain and repair the relationship.
2 ...Validate the offense.
3 ...Reestablish the moral code or social contract with the offended party.
4 ...Suffer for what he has done.
5 ...Acknowledge shame and remorse.
6 ...Show the offence was not personal and will not happen again.
7 ...Acknowledge there is a debt to be paid.
8 ...Give the victim the power to forgive or not to forgive.
9 ...Restore the dignity of the other at the cost of dignity of him- or herself.
"Because of all these things," Lazare concludes, "an effective apology is an act of honesty, an act of humility, an act of commitment, an act of generosity, and an act of courage."

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