Fall 2010-#11. The Power of Apology and Forgiveness.

Authorby Angela M. Eastman, Esq.

Vermont Bar Journal


Fall 2010-#11.

The Power of Apology and Forgiveness

THE VERMONT BAR JOURNALVolume 36, No. 3Fall 2010The Power of Apology and Forgivenessby Angela M. Eastman, Esq.In many protracted conflicts, apology and forgiveness are essential for reconciliation and conflict resolution. As long as one party continues to blame the other (or both parties blame each other) for their problems, resolution cannot occur, and relationships based on mutual acceptance and trust cannot be formed. Generally, we think that apology and forgiveness are two small acts, but apology and forgiveness can shift the dynamic of conflict entirely when properly given and received.


In western society, we seem to have developed a general unapologetic attitude. Alternatively, we have become very proficient in the non-apology apology. People choose to engage in contentious litigation, often being ordered to pay thousands or millions of dollars in court awards and legal fees, because they are unwilling to offer a sincere and genuine apology. Those three words-"I am sorry"-are powerful words that can often save people a great deal of time, money, and hurt in the legal world.

As children, our parents often advised us (or forced us) to properly apologize; yet, as adults we are sometimes reluctant to apologize. The way we counsel children and adults to act when they have injured others is quite different. Jonathan Cohen comments that:

Parents, or at least good parents, teach children to take responsibility when they have wronged another: Apologize and make amends. In contrast, lawyers typically counsel the opposite. Most lawyers focus on how to deny responsibility, including what defenses a client might have against a charge and what counterclaims. If a lawyer contemplates an apology, it may well be with a skeptical eye: Don't risk apology, it will just create liability.(fn1)

The potential consequences of an unwillingness to apologize can be severe. Disputes often become concrete legacy-so much that apologies and forgiveness are not even considered. A perfect example is provided by family disputes. Conflict between family members can create schisms and long-standing resentment, resulting in family relationships breaking down and, eventually, peripheral family members taking sides. A more familiar example is the litigated case where an initial unwillingness to apologize leads to a long, costly, and contentious court battle; both parties become embittered, clearly drawing their respective lines in the sand, and firmly committing to their positions and principles. Apologies offer validation and people desire validation. Clearly, the failure to apologize can be a central factor in escalating conflict.

Despite the serious consequences of not apologizing, we seem to have even greater fears about the potential consequences of doing so, including fear of the other person's negative reaction toward us, fear of losing power or authority by admitting wrongdoing, and fear that such an admission indicates we are weak, incompetent, or bad. In On Apology, Aaron Lazare suggests that these fears are largely unfounded because "most responses to genuine apologies are expressions of gratitude."(fn2) As for the fears...

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