The Art of Apology
in Conflict Resolution

In negotiation it is unavoidable: sooner or later, you'll do or say something that offends or hurts your partner. Whether or not the harm you cause is intentional, you'll need to do something to repair the relationship. You can negotiate with someone who is enraged at (or merely irritable with) you, but your negotiation will be derailed over and over again as feelings interfere with rational judgment. Or to put it another way:

De-escalation cannot occur until the (Hurting) Stalemate is somehow resolved, usually by someone saying they are sorry. And, without de-escalation there cannot be resolution. Although many have dismissed apologies as "cheap talk," a substantial body of research has found that words can, in fact, go a long way toward repairing damaged bonds and agreements.

Almost everyone seems to agree that saying you are sorry should be the result of some analysis and introspection on the part of the offender--if it comes too spontaneously or off-the-cuff it loses power and legitimacy. The offender may need time in order to reflect upon the harm done, form true remorse for the offense, and prepare a heartfelt apology.In The One Minute Apology: A Powerful Way to Make Things Better, Ken Blanchard and Margret McBride outline in great detail the process of introspection that should precede saying you are sorry. They urge readers to ask the following questions in order to discover and acknowledge the wrong that might have occurred:

  • What mistakes did I make?

  • Did I dismiss another person, their wishes, feelings, or ideas?

  • Did I take credit when it was not due?

  • Why did I do this?

  • Was it an impulsive, thoughtless act?

  • Was it calculated?

  • Was it a result of my fear, anger, or frustration?

  • What was my motivation?

  • How long have I let this go on? Is this the first or repeated time?

  • Is this behavior becoming a pattern in my life?

  • What is the truth I am not dealing with?

  • Am I better than this behavior?

The central idea here is to engage in a guided process of moral inventory --taking stock of one's behavior and the harm that it might have caused.

Saying you are sorry involves the acknowledgement of injury with an acceptance of responsibility, affect (felt regret or shame - the person must mean it),and vulnerability - the risking of an acknowledgement without excuses. It is repair work - work that is often necessary, but difficult.

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Saying you are sorry is a ritual exchange, where what is offered in exchange for the injury done is a...speech expressing regret. "[W]hat makes this work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended," On Apology, by Dr. Aaron Lazare.


  1. Acknowledgment: There is a "ritual" of apology. There must be an acknowledgment - a recognition -specifying exactly what the offense is, acknowledging that it is an offense and that the injury has damaged the bonds between the offending and offended parties. The aggrieved person needs to know that the offender sees the situation in the same way. The offender should state clearly the offense and the impact. The social norm or value that has been violated should be specified to signal to the offended that the offender shares the same basic ideals. It is acknowledging your role as the offending party in inflicting injury. Contrast this with the classic non apology, which classically begins, I am sorry, you thus avoiding any acknowledgement of personal responsibility for the harm caused and seeks to question or diminish that harm.

  2. Responsibility: Taking responsibility involves acknowledging a precise role in the offense without attempting to diminish that role in any way. In order to truly accept responsibility, the offending party must also be visibly affected personally by what s/he has done --to be troubled by it. Those who have tried to explain this experience variously name that sense as "regret" and "shame."

  3. Remorse and Vulnerability: The offended want to see the offender suffer in some way, starting with the emotional suffering that comes from a strong sense of guilt and sorrow. The offender should signal this act of contrition, both verbally and with body language. Thus, a key aspect of apology is the vulnerability involved. The offending party is placed in a potentially vulnerable state in saying s/he is sorry -- knowing that the chance exists that it may be refused. More than anything else, it is vulnerability that colors apology.

  4. Exchange of Shame and Power: What makes saying you are sorry work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. Apologizing thus also involves a role-reversal: the person saying s/he is sorry relinquishes power and puts him/herself at the mercy of the offended party who may or may not accept. The ritual exchange involves a moral rebalancing in which the offender through the apology risks exposure to shame from the offended and others present for his/her actions, while the offended is empowered by the recognition and valuing of his/her suffering.

  5. Restitution/Reparations: Restitution involves compensating the offended in some way so as to restore the relationship to its prior state. The offended wants to see a sacrifice. This may not necessarily involve money or other material asset. But the offender can't expect to get away without making meaningful recompense. There must be a plea to repair the relation; the offending party must mean it. Damages are owed. The offending party must make some attempt at restitution, either by compensation or changed behavior. If something was stolen it must be returned or if damaged - repaired. Saying you are sorry is repair work. While there are some injuries that cannot be repaired just by saying you are sorry, there are others that can only be repaired by an apology.

To see how it's done checkout this apology John Cleese gives to Kevin Kline in "A Fish Named Wanda," after Kline provides an unusual incentive:

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