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MEDIATION QUARTERLY, Vol. 17, Number 3 (Spring 2000)

Carl D. Schneider

The importance of apology as the acknowledgement of injury is familiar to some forms of mediation, including victim-offender mediation, but has been much less understood in divorce mediation. The act of apology represents one of the core reparative opportunities in damaged relations. But it’s not easy. This article will describe the opportunity that apology presents, the difficulty we have in seizing that opportunity, and the role that third parties can have in inviting apology. It will identify: 1) what is involved in a genuine apology, identifying the three essential components of apology; 2) the place of apologies in mediation including the recognition of apology as an acknowledgement of injury and the identification of how to assist clients in offering an apology; and 3) the relation of apology to the adversarial system.


Apologies differ. Compare the following:

Rev. John Plummer was a pilot in Vietnam who called for an air strike on the village of Trang Bang. Twice, before acting, he was assured there were no civilians in the area. Later, he saw the Pulitzer prize-winning photo of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from Trang Bang naked and horribly burned by napalm, and was tortured by “the realization that it was I who was responsible for her injuries.”

Years of torment ensued as he silently endured his guilt, finding no way to express his remorse. Then he saw a story that the girl was living in Toronto and would attend a Veterans Day observance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. He felt compelled to see her. Upon hearing what had happened to her family, he broke down saying over and over again: “I’m sorry….I’m so sorry…. I’m sorry” (Purdue, 1997 p. 2).

President Richard Nixon in his resignation speech said, “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of events that have led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be in the best interest of the nation.”1

Do each of the above examples represent an apology? Why? Why not? Is one more effective than the other? How can we tell? Just what exactly is an apology?


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.” This modern definition captures the core elements of apology: a) acknowledgment, b) affect, and c) vulnerability.

What are the Elements of Apology?

a). Acknowledgment:

Jeffrie Murphy (Murphy and Hampton, 1988, p. 28) speaks of the role of ritual in apology. Often, when an apology is called for someone has attempted to degrade or insult the other; to bring them low. “As a result, we in a real sense lose face when done a moral injury…But our moral relations provide for a ritual whereby the wrongdoer can symbolically bring himself low – in other words, the humbling ritual of apology, the language of which is often that of begging for forgiveness.”

There is a “ritual” of apology. As the OED says, there must be an acknowledgment – a recognition – of an injury that has damaged the bonds between the offending and offended parties. The offense has to qualify as a genuine injury – one that has involved some transgression of a moral or relational norm that has both damaged the offender’s social bonds and called into question his/her membership in some community. Tavuchis (1991, p. 13) calls this injury “an act that cannot be undone, but cannot go unnoticed.”

In turn the offending party must personally be accountable for it. This can’t be a Marv Alpert “I’m sorry if she felt she was harmed” passing stab. It is not being sorry that she is the sort of person who feels that way. Rather, it is acknowledging my role as the offending party in inflicting injury. I have no excuse for what I did, yet it was indeed my action.

Contrast this with Nixon’s classic non-apology. In one fell swoop he withheld any acknowledgment that he was responsible for any specific wrongs, hedged on whether there even were any wrongs, and skipped over any direct responsibility for the harm that had been done.

b). Affect:

In order to truly accept responsibility, the offending party must also be visibly affected personally by what s/he has done. I am troubled by it. Scholars who have tried to parse this experience variously name that sense as “regret” and “shame.” Whichever the affect, the feeling has to be there! Nothing more offended commentators about President Clinton’s “apology” than its lack of felt regret. As Mary McGrory (1998 p. A3) said about Americans listening to it, “Lying and adultery they could handle, but not being sorry, especially after you’re caught and cornered, is unacceptable.”2

It is, of course, possible to be over the top with this. Ted Turner offered what one observer called “the mother of all mea culpas” to television critics after his Cable News Network (CNN) retracted a report that the United States military had used lethal nerve gas in Laos that targeted United States defectors. “I couldn’t hurt any more if I was bleeding,” said Turner. “He went on,” said Peter Boyer, “to say that his humiliation was so complete, his mortification so deeply felt, that no other sorrow he’d known in his fifty-nine years – the suicide of his father, the breakup of his first two marriages, the 1996 World Series defeat of the Braves by the Yankees – compared with what he felt now. What had happened at CNN was, indeed, ‘probably the greatest catastrophe of my life.'” (Boyer, p. 28).

c). Vulnerability:

Finally, an apology is offered without defense. A key aspect of apology is the vulnerability involved. An effective apology may be accepted, but as Erving Goffman (1971) taught so well, an apology may be offered, forgiveness may be begged for, yet it may be refused. The offender may have owned up to the wrong inflicted, but this does not guarantee that the offended party will accept the apology. Instead, the offended party can ignore or punish the offender for the wrong done. The offended person may feel that the offense, although acknowledged, is so incalculable — so enormous — that it is simply “unforgivable.” Martha Minow notes that “Albert Speer, the only Nazi leader at Nuremberg to admit his guilt, also wrote, ‘No apologies are possible.'” (Minow, p. 116).

The offending party is placed in a potentially vulnerable state in offering the apology knowing that the chance exists that it may be refused. More than anything else, it is vulnerability that colors apology. Indeed, many of us know well the moment in relationships when the other party has been offended by something and we weigh whether we will attempt to repair it. We know that attempting to restore the relation will take effort. It won’t be easy. Is it worth it? We all have debated whether the relation was important enough to us to bother. It is not only effort, but exposure we are weighing. If this doesn’t work, things may be worse.

The Exchange of Shame and Power

Where a serious injury has been done, an offer of reparations may accompany the apology. It is crucial, though, that the person apologizing recognize that there is truly nothing s/he can offer tangibly that will suffice for the damage done. Nic Tavuchis (1991, p. 33) pinpoints the paradox of apology: “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.” “An apology is inevitably inadequate” (Minow, 1998, p. 114). It is a ritual exchange. “What, we may ask, is offered in exchange? Curiously, nothing, except a…speech expressing regret.” Thus, the powerful formula of Aaron Lazare (1995, p. 42, italics added):

“What makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended.”

Apology thus also involves a role-reversal: the person apologizing relinquishes power and puts himself at the mercy of the offended party who may or may not credit the apology. This dynamic is also much in evidence in what has become known as Family Group Conferences or community conferences that have developed in Australia and New Zealand. Youthful offenders who have confessed to a crime agree to meet in a group with the victim and his/her relatives and friends. As David Moore (1993, p. 6) says, “the act of apology is clearly a central part of the process that occurs.” In this setting the offender submits to the power of the group and thereby helps remove shame from the victim by taking it on himself.

The empowerment that occurs here is not some ‘power-balancing’ that the mediator manipulates. The ritual exchange involves a moral rebalancing offered by the offender. “The apology reminds the wrongdoer of community norms because the apology admits to violating them. By retelling the wrong and seeking acceptance, the apologizer assumes a position of vulnerability before not only the victims but also the larger community of literal and figurative witnesses” (Minow, 1998, p. 114).


For some observers other elements must also be present for a “true” apology. There must be a plea to repair the relation; the offending party must mean it. To demonstrate this some require only that the offending party genuinely appears sorry. Others require a clear indication that the situation will not happen again. Still others require the offending party to make some attempt at restitution. A casual “sorry” to a store owner after dropping and breaking a glass vase won’t cut it. Damages are owed. Or, as Bishop Desmond Tutu says, “If you take my pen and say you are sorry, but don’t give me the pen back, nothing has happened.”

There are others who require some change in behavior. John Hope Franklin, the black historian, discussing the appropriateness of an apology for slavery observes (1997, p. 61), “You can tell me you’re sorry, but it won’t make me feel any better, it won’t get me a better situation in life, a better job, an extra month in school.”

Although restitution or changed behavior are often indispensable components of an acceptable apology, the author believes they are not essential elements of an apology per se. Many times in apology the offending party faces the fact that nothing can be done to right the wrong. The past cannot be erased: the damage is done and cannot be undone. Here, the offender can only pray that the offended may find the grace to forgive, but not because the offender has found some equivalence to make up for the injury.

Repair Work

Apology is repair work. As Wagatsuma and Rosett (1986 p. 487) nicely put it, “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.” This is the power of apology – indeed, sometimes its necessity – that it is the reparative mechanism available when relations have encountered something that cannot be fixed, but which also cannot be ignored (Tavuchis, 1991, p.34).

And repair work is difficult. Need trousers cuffed? No problem. But repair a torn pair of pants? You need to be a tailor.

Wash dishes? Sure. Repair broken china? A lot more delicate. And the work of apology is both more difficult and more delicate.


Apology is an Acknowledgment

Mediation has long been viewed as “an alternative form of dispute resolution.” And “dispute resolution” does capture the nature of much mediation. So regarded, mediation is a form of problem-solving. There is then a clear end-point to mediation and it is to achieve a settlement.

Apology, however, is clearly not about problem-solving. Nor is it about negotiating. It is, rather, a form of ritual exchange where words are spoken that may enable closure. An apology represents more than an occasional event in mediation. It is embedded in the very nature of the process. Mediation, after all, is frequently about disputes in which at least one party feels injured by the other. Along with negotiations over the facts of the case, demands for compensation, and denunciations of the other side, there is often a felt need for some acknowledgment of harm done, a need for some acceptance of personal responsibility for the injury inflicted. In short, an apology.?

Assisting Clients with Apology

Can people authentically apologize in mediation? Yes, but in the author’s experience, many people need some assistance. People often need to get past the defensiveness and fear of blame that preclude apology. The divorce mediation case of Alice and Brad offers an example.

Alice and Brad

Alice and Brad disagreed about the support Brad would pay for their child. In earlier years both Alice and Brad had held good jobs. As their lives unravelled, however, Alice found herself having to borrow money to make ends meet and wanted $700 a month in support from Brad. Brad had also lost his job and found himself working in a local Wal-Mart earning less than $200 a week as a “stock-boy.” When Alice and Brad engaged in the mediation budgeting process, it became clear that Brad needed $1900 a month just to get by, let alone satisfy what Alice wanted. When asked what seemed “fair,” Alice, after looking at the numbers on the flip board said, “Well, if you just look at that, it seems fair, but…,” she trailed off.

The mediator responded: “It seems like there are other considerations for you,” “Yes,” Alice said. “He left the marriage. I am trying to ignore that, but none of this would have happened if he hadn’t left. He had the affair. He acknowledges it himself. I thought we had a partnership: I supported his three kids from his first marriage and now that that’s done, he takes off. (Fighting off tears) I feel like a maid!”?

“So you feel there should be some compensation?” asked the mediator.

“Yes!”exclaimed Alice.

The mediator, meeting separately with Brad, asked “Do you have a response to Alice’s comments?”

Brad’s first responses were defensive. The mediator continued: “It seems important to the process that these concerns be spoken. Do you think you could acknowledge her feelings?”

Brad responded: “What that means is that I give her more money?”

“No, not necessarily,” the mediator said. “But it seems like when her feelings aren’t acknowledged, it keeps intruding on the financial decisions. The personal issues have no other way to be raised. My experience is that it makes a genuine difference if you can acknowledge how each other feels. I hear Alice not blaming, but saying, ‘I thought we had a partnership. Your leaving, after I supported your kids, feels like I’m being used. Your decision has caused damage – to both of us and our daughter.’ It feels unfair to her.”

“Look,” he blurted out, “we were fine, and I had an affair. I screwed up! But I also feel like I gave her all my money for years.”

“So it sounds like you have a concern too. You feel like Alice hasn’t acknowledged all you did. You did screw up, but there was more to your marriage than how it ended.” “Yes.”

When the parties were brought together again, the mediator announced that Brad had something to say.?

“I did the best I could…” he started defensively. Then, he said, “I screwed up. … (pause) I’m sorry.”

Alice was near tears.

Brad: “I also did what I could.”

The mediator turned to Alice: “I hear Brad also saying, it is important for him that his efforts are acknowledged.”

Alice quickly threw off: “I did that. A couple of years ago. I said. ‘I thought we were doing okay.'”

The mediator said, “I think we are talking about right now, not the past. You may have tried to say it; I don’t think Brad heard it.”

Alice: “I think you did the best you were capable of…”

“And is there a thank you for that part of it?” the mediator queried.
Alice (paused, then a smile) “Yes, thank you.”

Both were in tears. The mediator commented: “I hear that this is not anything you wanted, a divorce. It has changed things. Brad, you acknowledge that you screwed up and it has hurt you, Alice, and caused damage. You’re sorry for that. But also that both of you put a lot of yourselves into this marriage and the acknowledgment of that is important. Many people aren’t able to do that.”

The moment quickly passed, but the following week Brad brought in the documents he had not produced until this point. The outstanding issues, including support, were soon resolved.?

How It Is Done

Several things are worth noting about this apology in mediation. Alice and Brad needed help to get to this apology. It was not imposed; it was offered. But Brad and Alice could not get past either their blame or their defensiveness by themselves. A critical step in the process was the caucus. Parties often need preparation before they are ready to offer an apology. Finally, the parties needed help with the words. There is a piece of back-leading here on the part of the mediator, but the parties won’t go along with this if they are not ready. An apology involves such vulnerability that it is safer – often, the only way it is safe enough – if the mediator puts the apology in words and parties simply indicate their assent.

A powerful example of the outcome of assisting a party to apologize occurred at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. After three dozen witnesses had testified over nine days about murders, assaults and abductions associated with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her protection squad, Madikizela-Mandela herself finally testified. But her testimony was combative, denying even the most minor allegations against her as “fabrications” and labeling the testimony of witnesses as “lies.”

Lynne Duke, reporting on the hearing (1997, A1, 48), observed,

    Madikizela-Mandela, 63, offered no hand of reconciliation to assembled victims of her protection force – until Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the truth commission chairman, begged her to do so. Invoking a historic bond of the Mandela and Tutu family names, Tutu said that something in Madikizela-Mandela’s once-great life had gone “horribly, badly wrong. I beg you, I beg you, I beg you. Please. You are a great person. You don’t know how your greatness would be enhanced if you said, ‘Sorry.'”

Luke reports that

    silence spread through the packed hall. After a long pause Madikizela-Mandela finally responded. She apologized to the families of her club’s most brutally slain victims….: ‘I am saying it is true: Things went horribly wrong.’ Madikizela-Mandela said, the sting of the day-long hearings absent from her voice. ‘For that I am deeply sorry.'”

Here we see the great skill required for a third party to step in and assist in birthing an apology. The risks were huge, the stakes high, the vulnerability enormous. Yet, Tutu managed in the midst of very powerful group pressure to block it all out and make a deeply personal appeal that did not make Madikizela-Mandela feel trapped or coerced. It allowed her to save face.

Apology as Power-Balancing

We speak much in mediation about power-balancing. Often, however, our solutions tend toward heavy-handed techniques: controlling the powerful, limiting their dominance in the session, doing “reality” confrontations, threatening the disasters that the alternative of a trial would bring, etc. The example that follows, though, is an instance of power-balancing that parties themselves achieved. The powerful offer their vulnerability. Through recognition, the humiliated are empowered.?

Gary Geiger and Wayne Blanchard

An extraordinary example of such power-balancing is the story of Gary Geiger, a young man who was shot at point-blank range during a robbery at a motel in New York. The man who shot him, a 21-year-old named Wayne Blanchard, was later captured. Blanchard was sentenced to 12-25 years in prison. Gary was not killed, but he was severely wounded and traumatized. Recurrent nightmares, a massive dose of post-traumatic stress, and the loss of his job all followed.

After years of watching his life disintegrate Gary finally decided the only possible way to reverse his situation was to confront his attacker. Contacted by Dr. Tom Christian through a Victim-Offender Mediation program within the New York State penal system, Gary went to the New York prison where Wayne Blanchard was incarcerated and met him face-to-face in a mediation.

The encounter became part of a TV show, “Confronting Evil.” In it Gary at one point with exquisite politeness asks Wayne: “Why, if you can possibly help me, did the robbery get so violent?….Can you tell me, please, why you shot me?” Elsewhere, Gary in an amazing exchange says: “I know you’ve lost a lot. But I lost quite a lot too. The first phase was nightmares. I couldn’t sleep. I’d start shaking. I wondered, am I always going to be like this?”

Visibly moved when directly confronted with the damage he caused, the convict, Wayne, responds: “I’m really truly sorry for what happened in that motel that night… I’m not only sorry for the pain you feel but what your family had to go through that brought your life to what it is now. I have a lot of pain in me, too. I haven’t had a chance to live…because of the stupid things I did… I’m sorry,…I really am.”

“I’m glad that you’re sorry,” adds Gary.

The exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended is a dramatically powerful encounter. Gary approaches the table with years of fear, powerlessness, and trauma. Wayne, who had terrorized his victim, offers instead his vulnerability and apologizes.

Several key elements of apology are visible here. This clearly was a ritual exchange. Isolated and out of context, the speech here is formal to the point of being rather weird: Gary: “I’m glad that you’re sorry.” Or again, “Can you tell me, please, why you shot me?” “Please“? It is a humbling ritual which allows “the wrongdoer /to/ symbolically bring himself low,” pleading for an opportunity to make things right with the victim. “If there was something I could say or do that would help you, I’d gladly do it.”

And it raises up the victim. Fascinatingly, Gary is empowered in this exchange. Before the conversation Gary says that for years he had “thought the offender was a monster,” a being whom he had fantasized as horribly powerful. The end of this ritual of apology has Gary shaking off his shame and paralysis and identifying in a different way with the power Wayne held over him: “The last time you and I met you extended your hand to me in anger. Now, I want to extend my hand to you as a sign of healing for both of us.” Here we see both sides of what transformative mediation talks about: both parties have been empowered and they have gained new understanding of each other. ?

We have said parties need help to have such an exchange. In the Gary-Wayne exchange the mediator began by encouraging both parties to join in a ritual dance. He invited the two men to speak as equals: “I want you two to talk to each other. This is your process. Look at each other. Talk like two human beings, man to man.” In other words, not as jailed and free, not as victim and perpetrator. Meet on a level playing field, man to man!”

They do. Each man has one kind of power over the other. Wayne has the power of fear, of physical violence. Gary has both moral power – he is the victim – and the power of freedom – he can walk out of the prison after this conversation. Yet Gary relinquishes his power and identifies with the shame of Wayne’s position: “You’ve lost a lot; I have too….You’re in prison; I’ve been in a sort of prison myself.” He validates Wayne as a participant in this conversation with legitimate motivation, not just a convict. “It really takes a man to admit when he’s wrong and apologize as you just did. I waited 11 years to hear that and I didn’t know if I would ever hear it.” And Wayne reciprocates, validating Gary as a man: “I’d like to thank you for coming in today and facing me after what I did to you.”

One might be tempted to view such an exchange with cynicism; nothing has really changed. Wayne remained in prison. But this exchange occurred before Wayne Blanchard was up for parole in May 1994. From this experience Gary Geiger made a decision to appear at Wayne’s parole hearing and to ask the board to give Wayne another chance. He asked for Wayne’s release. ?

Since Wayne’s release, Gary and Wayne have appeared throughout the state of New York speaking of their experience.


When we ask whether apologies are appropriate in mediation, perhaps the elements that most lead us to feel it is out of place are our system of law and the influence of the adversarial system. It is the pairing of these two – the law and the adversarial system – that create such uncongenial soil for apology. Our system of jurisprudence is preoccupied with the defense of individual rights and the fear of the establishment of blame. It is this fear of admitting culpability that can effectively preclude apology.

Contrast our system with that of the Japanese, a country where the law operates with a different set of assumptions. For Americans, apology is often equated with an admission of individual liability under law; apology for the Japanese, by contrast, plays a major role as a social restorative mechanism. It has an important ceremonial role in preserving and restoring social harmony (Wagatsuma and Rosett, 1986, pp. 466, 472).?

The very nature of our adversarial system is antithetical to the setting needed to allow an apology to emerge. We have noted repeatedly that apology entails vulnerability. The adversarial system, however, is structured as a contest. It is organized to produce a winner and a loser and to issue judgments. It inescapably generates defensiveness. It is a system that relies on rationalization: there are differing standards of proof depending on differing kinds of wrong. It deals in degrees of culpability (“first degree murder, justifiable homicide, etc.) and rationalizes mitigating circumstances (it was due to an impaired self, diminished capacity, external forces) (Tavuchis, 1991, p. 19). Yet, this prevarication is precisely what apology is not, and cannot be, if it is to work. Excuses rationalize: there was a crisis at home; I was tired, distracted, not thinking, drunk, etc. In apology I was responsible. I did it. No qualifications, no excuses. I can only beg your mercy and forgiveness.

This tension between the legal system and apology was most dramatically seen in President Clinton’s faux-apology on television. Some advisors recognized the critical necessity for an apology. Democratic political consultant Robert Shrum proposed a draft in which Clinton would have said: “‘I let too many people down’ – including his family, the American people and Lewinsky – and that ‘none of this ever should have happened.’ Clinton would have…said there was ‘no excuse’ for his behavior and expressly apologized for his behavior.” But, reports The Washington Post (1998, A16), his personal attorney David E. Kendall “wanted Clinton above all to do nothing that might increase his legal jeopardy. This meant limiting apologies and being vague about precisely what actions he was expressing regret about.” ?

Perhaps the best examples of our legal aversion to apology are those cases involving financial misconduct in which a company agrees to cease and desist from an activity with no admission of fault (Wagatsuma and Rosett, 1986, p. 471). The examples are legion: Sears’ auto mechanics systematically charging for work not needed; Prudential Securities pushing bad limited partnerships; Salomon Brothers buying more bonds than permissible. In each case the company buys its way out of a jam and, as John Rothchild (1994, p. 51) puts it, “announces concrete steps to ensure that whatever they haven’t admitted to doing will never happen again.”

A Place for Apology

In American law, specific places do occur where apology may play a role. In criminal cases, for example, apology and remorse often result in a mitigation of punishment (Wagatsuma and Rosett, 1986, p. 479). Apology may also mitigate damages in a defamation suit and may function as a bar to libel actions (Ibid., p. 478, 479). There are also instances where an apology has been a critical element in settlements of lawsuits.

An apology was at the heart of a civil lawsuit brought against the Catholic Diocese of Dallas. Eleven plaintiffs claimed the diocese had failed to protect them from Rudolph Kos, a priest in the diocese, who was accused of sexual molestation of the altar boys between 1981-1992. In the summer of 1997 a civil jury awarded the plaintiffs $119.6 million, the largest judgment ever against a diocese. The final attorney-negotiated settlement of $23.4 million dollars was stalled over the plaintiff’s demand for an apology, even after the sides had agreed on the damages to be paid! The apology, when it came, was a powerful one. Said Bishop Charles V. Grahmann: “I…want to, with very profound and deep compassion, renew my apology to the victims and their families for the immense suffering that has been a part of their lives…” “In exchange for the bishop’s apology, the…plaintiffs agreed to vacate the verdict” (Blaney and Dooley, 1998, pp. 1, 15).

The Fear of Apology?

Nonetheless, in spite of such dramatic exceptions, the preoccupation of American jurisprudence with defending individual rights and fearing any admission of culpability effectively precludes apology in a great many cases.< SUP> This, in spite of the frequent reports that often major civil cases could have been avoided with a simple apology. A recent example was the case of Alonzo Jackson, the black teenager who was stopped at an Eddie Bauer store in Fort Washington, Maryland. A security guard thought Alonzo was shoplifting a shirt and asked him to take the shirt off. He had purchased the shirt the day previously and the case flared up into an $85 million dollar lawsuit against Eddie Bauer. Alonzo’s father, interviewed about the incident, said that at the time: “An apology would have sufficed…and maybe a free shirt for (my) son.” (Jones, 1997, pp. C1,4) Alonzo Jackson similarly said, “If they had apologized from the start or given some response, the lawsuit wouldn’t happen. It feels like they don’t care.” Eddie Bauer, though they did apologize publicly, never apologized privately, and indeed went on to lose this case.

President Clinton’s handling of the Paula Jones lawsuit may be the best known recent example of the enormous damage that can flow from the failure to apologize. It now appears that Jones would have settled her famous lawsuit early on in the process if she had received an apology. Jones’ co-counsel at the time, Joseph Cammarata, suggested the modest apology that might have sufficed: “We are not trying to demean him. We don’t need /details/…I think we need…. something that acknowledges that he may have done something that is offensive and that he regrets it…./along with/ an expression of regret and recognition that she did nothing wrong”(Lehigh, 1997, E1). Asked whether such a settlement might be considered, Robert Bennett, Clinton’s lead attorney, gave a one-word reply through an aide: “No.” A costly decision for us all.?

Mediation, Apology and the Law

Even though mediation is meant to be an alternative to adjudication, when attorneys step into mediation they seldom leave behind their adversarial instincts. When attorneys are present it is generally far more difficult to hold open the space for apology. “When nonlegal issues were addressed in mediation sessions,” noted researchers, “lawyers acted as ‘watchdog(s)’ guarding against their client’s unwitting forfeiture of legal entitlements” (McEwen et al., 1994, pp. 171-72 cited by Levi, p. 1186). Thus, an apology arouses suspicion for in apology I relinquish all my justifications. I do not plead an impaired self, diminished capacity or external forces (Tavuchis, 1991, p. 19). I forswear covering myself in excuses, and allow myself to appear morally naked, unjustified, undeserving in front of the other (Ibid., p. 18). This worries attorneys.

Attorneys would prefer for their clients to keep a respectful silence when in the presence of the other party lest they unwittingly give away the store. Leading questions are favored by attorneys as inquiries capable of one word answers – a safeguard against clients speaking too freely. In apology, in stark contrast, a client is invited not only to speak freely, but to appear nakedly, without defense. From this perspective an apology in relation to the adversarial process resembles David encountering Goliath. The one is loaded down with protective armor; the other appears in utmost simplicity.?

The following is a fairly typical instance of the difficulty many attorneys and defendants have with grasping the importance in employment disputes that apology can have. A mediation client, a 77-year-old woman, filed a complaint because her employer, having discharged her, reassured her she would not be embarrassed before her colleagues on her last day. He promised to provide a cover story for her and say that she was going on “leave of absence.” When she arrived that last day, however, she was humiliated to find that several employees already knew she had been discharged. She took the discharge very personally, protesting that there had never been a complaint about her work. A new, young personnel manager who had taken a dislike to the older worker after she had some recent illnesses, complained, “I don’t want any grandmother working for me!” The worker filed an age discrimination suit.

Whether the complainant could prove age discrimination was questionable. Although she had been treated shoddily, shoddy is not illegal. The worker was grasping for some redress. More than money, this woman wanted an apology. The attorney for the defendant, however, and the personnel manager wanted to know what it was that the complainant wanted. The client said again that what she wanted was an apology.

“But we need to know what you want,” persisted the attorney, looking only for the dollar figure for which the woman would settle.

The complainant again dissolved into tears. She had wanted to retire with “grace and dignity,” she said. Instead, she felt humiliated in front of her colleagues when she realized others knew she had been fired.

In caucus the mediator suggested to the personnel manager that if she could offer it, an apology here would make all the difference.

Manager: “I’m not going to apologize. I’ve done nothing wrong,” she said.?

Attorney: “How much do they want?”

Mediator: “I don’t know, but I believe it will be a lot less if there is an apology first.”

The personnel manager finally said she would try. When the joint session resumed, the manager started well, but quickly slid into defensiveness.

“Ethel, I like you. We have worked together well. I’m sorry you felt we discriminated against you, sorry you felt we were unfair. We never intended to hurt you, and we never discriminated. We had a lot of work to do; we felt it wasn’t being done and we spelled that out in a meeting with you.”

Ethel looked at the mediator for help. The mediator acknowledged her distress: “Ethel, was this an apology for you?”

In the author’s opinion, this was not an effective apology. It failed on every count: it was not an acknowledgment, there was no affect, and finally, there was no vulnerability.


Apology – its invitation, its expression, its reception – has been only minimally explored outside mediation, and rarely in the literature and workshops of mediation professionals. At most, apology has a place as a sub-set of discussions of forgiveness. This reflects both an omission of an exchange vitally important in its own right, and a loss of a key reparative opportunity.?

This essay has attempted a limited task: to clarify to nature of apology, to claim for it a place in mediation, to describe some of the work involved in preparing clients for apology, and to distinguish the nature of apology from the character of the adversary system in order to highlight the impact of the one on the other. Much work remains to be done if we are properly to understand apology: the relation of apology to reparations, of the symbolic to the material; the issue of the technology, art, and timing of apology; whether preparing people to recognize, accept and respond to opportunities for apology is necessary or properly the role of the mediator; the place of apology in different kinds of mediation – victim-offender, divorce, commercial, and international; and more. But we conclude here with the modest beginning of staking out the significance of apology.

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. At heart, many mediations are dealing with damaged relationships. When offered with integrity and timing, an apology can indeed be a critically important moment in mediation. Trust has been broken. An apology, when acknowledged, can restore trust. The past is not erased, but the present is changed (Kastor, 1998, p. D5).

Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission for two years. At its conclusion he spoke of the missed opportunity to heal the wounds of apartheid if only whites had been able to match the willingness of their black victims to forgive. His remarks captured the opportunity that apology presents, the difficulty we have in seizing that opportunity, and the role that third parties can have in inviting apology.?

    “My dear white compatriots… you have been let down by most of your leaders who have made you out to be too mean-spirited to respond to the incredible magnanimity and generosity of the victims. Please grasp this opportunity – or do you really agree with those leaders…? Is there no leader of some stature and some integrity in the white community who won’t try to be too smart, who is not trying to see how much he can get away with, but who will say quite simply: ‘We had a bad policy that had evil consequences. We are sorry. Please forgive us,’ and not then qualify it to death?”(Reuters, 1998, p. A20).

Divorce mediation offers just such an opportunity for clients to acknowledge they have acted in ways that have created injury and are sorry for the damage they have done to their marriage and their spouse. At the core, mediation can help people face damaged bonds and sort through whether anything is still intact. If the marriage vow has been broken and trust betrayed, does anything remain? Has everything been destroyed? An apology is often a means of saying, “Yes, there has been a terrible wound here, for which I am truly sorry. My intention is not to destroy you. I am ending this marriage, but I would like to close that door gently, not slam it shut.”

Wil Neville (1993) tells of meeting a woman who said she was getting ready to go back to court for the seventh time with her former husband.

Wil exclaimed: “Wow, what is it you’re wanting?”

She said, “More money.”

He said, “I don’t think you get money from court; I think you pay more to go to court.”?

The woman asked: “What do you think I want?”

Neville said, “I don’t know, but if you’re going back for the seventh time, it says there’s something really deep and really personal for you. My hunch is you’d like to hear him say, ‘You were a good spouse. We did have some good times. I am genuinely sorry that the good times didn’t go on.'”

Neville commented, “I noticed her tear up.”

Finally she said, “If I could ever hear that, I would never bother him again”!


Blaney B. and Dooley, T. “Diocese apologizes in Kos case.” San Francisco Star Telegram, July 8th, 1998, 1, 15.

Boyer, P. J. “The People’s Network.” The New Yorker, 1998, 28.

Cloke, K. “Mediating Sexual Harrassment Cases,” Mediation News, 11, #3, Fall 1992, 20-21.

Duke, L. “Winnie Mandela: Murder Accusers ‘Liars,'” The Washington Post, December 5, 1997, A1, 48.

Editorial, “Mea Not So Culpa.” The Washington Post. August 19, 1998, A20.

Felstiner,W. L. F., et al., “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, Claiming…” Law and Society Review, 15 1980-1981, 631-654.

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Harris, J. F. “Words Were Clinton’s Own, Too Much So, Aides Worry.” The Washington Post, August 19, 1998, A16.

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Kastor, E. “The Repentance Consensus: A Simple Apology Just Doesn’t Cut It.” The Washington Post, Aug. 19, 1998, D5.

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McEwen, C.A., and Milburn, T.W., “Explaining a Paradox of Mediation.” Negotiation Journal, January, 1993, 23-36.

McEwen, C.A., et al., “Lawyers, Mediation, and the Management of Divorce Practice,” Law and Society Review, 28, 1994, 149ff.

McGrory, M. “A Sorry Confession.” The Washington Post, August 20, 1998, A3.

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1President Clinton’s initial “apology” in the Monica Lewinsky affair has joined Richard Nixon’s as a classic example of a failed apology. See for example, Michael Kelly’s harsh assessment:”Our Bill has never really apologized for anything in his life, and he didn’t now. He never used the words “I’m sorry,” and he acknowledged “regret” only glancingly and euphemistically. Indeed, as he made quite clear, he wasn’t sorry, except, as all adolescents are, for getting caught. His passing imitation of an apology lasted for all of one sentence. By contrast, he devoted nearly nine full paragraphs to offering excuses….”(Kelly, 1998, A21).

2The press reported that Clinton’s advisors recognized the need for a felt expression of regret. The Washington Post reported that Paul Begala, one of Clinton’s advisors, who drafted the speech, included in his speech “far more forceful language of regret.” (Harris, 1998, P. A16).

3An interesting example in the American setting of the recognition of the value, and perhaps necessity, of apology in a sexual harrassment case is found in Ken Cloke’s recommendation of a “surrogate apology.” If, he suggests, “the perpetrator is unable to apologize, the mediators may do so as ‘surrogate’ apologists, saying: “‘Perhaps what ___ should have said to you is, I’m very, very sorry for what I did and I know that nothing I can say can make up for what I have done.” The mediators should say what they would want to hear if they were the victim” (Cloke, p. 21).

4Lon Fuller has identified the distinctive mode of expression in adjudication as a “device” that “gives formal and institutional expression to the influence of reasoned argument in human affairs. As such it assumes a burden of rationality not borne by any other form of social ordering…” (italics added).

“Professor Fuller observes that the demands made outside the courtroom may or may not be supported by principles. For example, one may appeal to generosity or offer to exchange some benefit for satisfaction of the demand. Once one enters the adjudicatory arena, however, a demand must become a claim of right supported by principles,” notes Levi, (1997 p. 1170, citing Lon L. Fuller, “The Forms and Limits of Adjudication,” 92, Harvard Law Review, (1978), 353ff.). (David Hoffman called the author’s attention to the Levi article.)

“It is no surprise that apologies are not a part of the courtroom repertoire. Unless legally recognized…they do nothing to adjust the allocation of rights rationally between the parties.”

The formalizing of the injury is only one part of the deconstruction of the space in which an apology might appear. The effect of the adversarial system in occluding the original insult which initiated a conflict also means that people may long since have lost sight of why they were fighting. As McEwen and Milburn note (1993, p. 28, cited by Levi, p. 1198, n. 142), initial tangible goals of apology, changed behavior and compensation often are lost in the “emerging metadisputes” which “highlight goals of victory, vindication, or retribution.”

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