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The power of apology in conflict

September 10, 2011

This week I witnessed the importance of sincerely offering or graciously accepting an apology. Granted, during times of high emotions, it isn’t always easy to do either. In these two cases, how an apology was offered (or not) and accepted (or not) had the power to change the outcome of the two relationships.

The first example was between a man and a woman who had recently started dating. He did something quite tacky that upset her. She explained how his actions had affected her. He had a choice to make about how to respond. He might have argued that she was wrong to view his behavior the way she did. Or, he might have justified how he acted in order to explain it away. Or, he might have ridiculed her for being upset and made it her problem for taking offense. Had he taken any of these options, their relationship might have ended that night.

Instead, he decided to listen to her perspective, respect her emotions, understand her point of view, apologize for upsetting her, take responsibility for what he had done and ask if she needed something from him to make amends. It was an artful apology, sincere and strategically offered. It diffused her emotional reaction to what had happened. Their relationship deepened and grew stronger instead of being damaged.

The second example involved a mother and teenage daughter who were hiking. The mother inadvertently took a wrong turn and they wound up across a gully from where the rest of the family waited for them. The daughter, trying to return to the correct trail, plunged into the gully despite the mother advising her not to go through the bush, The daughter was wearing shorts and sandals, so–  she was hurt when she bushwhacked through a patch of stinging nettles.

The mom apologized for getting them lost and tried to give aid to her crying and distraught daughter. The girl refused to hear her. She was in full blame mode. The daughter told the reunited family she would never hike with mom again. Mom was crushed that her apology was rejected but remained steadfast in taking responsibility and never mentioned the caution against entering the gully. Eventually, the daughter was able to chill enough to accept the apology and all was well between them.

Having seen how they improve relationships, it seems to me that offering and accepting apologies are skills we should practice more, whether the parties’ affiliations are strong or weak. The couple in the first example now have a wonderful relationship that might have ended before it had a chance. The mother and daughter might have endured a fracture in their communication as the daughter went through her teen years, when communication is most challenging. An apology, and its acceptance, healed both harms.

In these two cases, the players had strong attachments to each other that encouraged them to try to make things better. Even the weaker ties of workplace and social club attachments can benefit from people taking responsibility with the power of apologies. Both the person choosing to make and the person choosing to accept an apology– wind up feeling empowered when they make the decision to take responsibility and fix the conflict.


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