Apology and Conflict Resolution
Why It Works

Apology has been defined as "an acknowledgment intended as an atonement for some improper or injurious remark or act: an admission to another of a wrong or discourtesy done him accompanied by an expression of regret," according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961). Sorry may be the hardest word to say, but often saying sorry can be the most cost efficient thing to express.

According to new research by the University of Nottingham, companies that simply say sorry to disgruntled customers fare better than those that offer financial compensation. Not only are the customers more willing to use the company again, but the cost is clear - nothing. The researchers found people are more than twice as likely to forgive a company that says sorry than one that offers them cash as a form of recompense. The ploy works even though the recipient of the apology seldom gets it from the person who made it necessary in the first place.

Study co-author Dr Johannes Abeler said the results proved apologies were both powerful and cheap. "You might think that if the apology is costless then customers would ignore it as nothing but cheap talk - which is what it is. But this research shows apologies really do influence customers." According to the research, the apology was more powerful than a cash incentive.

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The study also discovered that a higher purchase price further reduced the number of customers willing to forgive for cash. On the other hand, the size of the purchase had no effect on the willingness of customers to settle for an apology

Apologies are effective in resolving conflict. An example is the recent settlement in the James Woods' lawsuit in which the actor was suing Kent Hospital in Rhode Island for the death of his brother, Michael Woods. He maintained his brother received negligent care when he visited the hospital's emergency room three years ago complaining of a sore throat. Michael Woods, who suffered from heart disease, went into cardiac arrest several hours later and died.

"Human errors in the healthcare setting occur for a number of reasons, but at the root of many of them is poor communication. These weaknesses in the delivery system will only be eradicated when the human factor is considered in designing the solution," said Sandra Coletta, President and Chief Executive Officer at Kent Hospital at a press conference announcing the settlement.

"We know we're not perfect at Kent Hospital. Mistakes were made. We can do better." As part of the settlement the hospital announced the creation of the Michael J. Woods Institute, which it said would focus on human-centered patient care. "This remarkable action of accountability has turned a bitter event into a landmark opportunity for hope," James Woods said. "The experience of my brother Michael Woods shines a light on what can occur in any institution where individuals are called upon to make life and death decisions while facing the most challenging conditions."

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Another new study finds that apologizing for negative outcomes may lead to more favorable jury verdicts. According to researchers Prof. Rick Warne at George Mason University and Prof. Robert Cornell of Oklahoma State University, "apologies allow the accused wrongdoer to express sorrow or regret about a situation without admitting guilt."

"We found that apologies reduce the jurors' need to assign blame for any negative outcomes to the client," says Warne . We know victims often respond favorably to an apology, but our findings suggest that even unharmed jurors react in a similar manner," says Cornell.

In his article The Power of Apology in Mediation, veteran mediator Dr. Carl D. Schneider states: "I have noticed that delivering an apology is usually more important to reaching closure than receiving one and forgiving is often more important than being forgiven. Both apologizing and forgiving, when genuinely offered, are acts of emotional resolution. In effect each is a way for people to put some part of the emotional aspects of the conflict behind them.…[T]he most powerful apologies or acts of forgiveness are those offered without any expectation of reciprocation….To be genuine and effective apologies must be unconditional."

A number of U.S. states have passed Apology Laws. These statutes allow individuals, often doctors and health care providers, to apologize and offer expressions of grief without their words being used against them in later in a civil court action. An increasing number of state governments, hospitals and insurance companies are realizing the incredible monetary and professional advantages that come with quick medical apologies in fact "I'm Sorry" laws are gaining widespread acceptance across the U.S.

There is even recent research that suggests that How Often You Apologize Impacts Your Marital Status and Your Income. A U.S. jewelry company recently interviewed 7,590 Americans on a range of questions about apologizing. According to the poll, there appears to be a correlation between how frequently we say sorry and our marital status and income level-data that relevant to a jewelry company looking to leverage that particular target group. Two of the more interesting findings were:

  • Married people extend apologies more readily, and almost twice as often as single and divorced people.

  • The more you earn, the more you apologize and vice-versa. The more you apologize, the more you earn.

For more about Apology and Negotiation go to The Art of Apology in Conflict Resolution.

To learn more about resolving conflict, click on any of the links below.

To learn more about other conflict resolution topics, click on any of the links below.

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