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Apology in Negotiation
Jennifer Gerarda Brown & Jennifer K. Robbennolt
Editors’ Note: Is “I’m sorry” the hardest phrase to say? Does it matter whether you mean it? This essay examines the critically important issue of apology, and how and when an apology can be helpful or harmful in a negotiation. Reviewing the latest empirical work, the authors discuss the purpose, type and timing of an apology, to ensure that any apology given accomplishes its goals. Note that they find that an apology offered cynically or casually may be worse than none at all. This chapter is closely related to Toussaint and Waldman on Forgiveness and Lewicki on Repairing Trust.
One topic that has received increased attention in recent decades is the role that apology might properly play in negotiation and conflict resolution (see generally Cohen 1999, 2002; Orenstein 1999; Shuman 2000; Taft 2000; O’Hara and Yarn, 2002; Robbennolt 2003; Bibas and Bierschbach 2004; Helmreich 2012; Carroll 2013; Smith 2014; Symposium 2014; Vines 2014). Whether it is the number of apologies that has increased, as Aaron Lazare (2004) argues, or merely the media coverage given to some high profile cases (Slansky and Sorkin 2006; Cerulo and Ruane 2014), it is clear that lawyers, their clients, and other negotiators are considering apology as a potential element in the resolution of disputes. From a practical perspective, the central goal seems to be identifying the crucial ingredients of an effective apology. But to script an effective apology, one must first consider more theoretical matters, including these important questions:
What is an apology, and what is the purpose of making one?
Who should make an apology, and who should receive it?
When is the optimal time for making an apology?
What negative consequences (especially legal consequences, such as civil or criminal liability) might flow from the apology, and is it a good thing for the law to eliminate or mitigate these negative consequences?
We will not attempt to answer all of these questions thoroughly within the confines of this brief essay. We will at least touch upon each question, however, and will focus particular attention on the potential purposes of an apology and the qualities that might make it effective, incorporating empirical data where it exists and is relevant.
The Purposes of Apology
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” (Webster’s Third International Dictionary 1993) or “[a]n explanation offered to a person affected by one's action that no offence was intended, coupled with the expression of regret for any that may have been given; or, a frank acknowledgment of the offence with expression of regret for it, by way of reparation” (Oxford English Dictionary 1989). As Erving Goffman (1971: 113) has explained, apology is a process through which a person symbolically splits “into two parts, the part that is guilty of an offense and the part that dissociates itself from the delict and affirms a belief in the offended rule.”
It is important to think about purposes, because the effectiveness of an apology can only be measured with reference to its goals. The purposes of apologies may be as numerous as the people who make them. Deborah Levi (1997) has analyzed categories of apology in mediation, and posited four types: “tactical” (acknowledging the victim's suffering in order to gain credibility and influence the victim's bargaining behavior); “explanation” (attempting to excuse the offender's behavior and make...
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