Saying You're Sorry
by Stephen Goldberg, Eric Green, and Frank Sander
Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation:"Saying You're Sorry,"in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffery Z. Rubin, (Cambridge:The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1991), pp. 141-146.
Stephen Goldberg, Eric Green, and Frank Sander, "Saying You're Sorry," in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffery Z. Rubin, (Cambridge: The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1991), pp. 141-146.
The authors discuss the use of apologies in conflict resolution. In cases where one side simply wants the other side to admit responsibility an apology may be sufficient to resolve the conflict. More often an apology alone is not sufficient to resolve the conflict; however an apology can reduce tensions and pave they way for more fruitful negotiations. Apologies also play an important role in maintaining and repairing relationships. For example, the authors point out that when a Japan Air Lines flight crashed in 1982, the company president went promptly in person to apologize to each of the crash victims' families.
The U.S. culture creates at least two obstacles to apologizing. First, apologizing is often felt to be demeaning or humbling. Refusing to apologize and "sticking to your guns" is the more psychologically acceptable stance. This may be contrasted to Japan, where open conflict results in a loss of face, and apologies preserve honor. Second, some legal jurisdictions treat an apology as evidence of wrongdoing. "Thus it is common for insurance companies and attorneys to advise policyholders against expressing sympathy for a person injured by the policyholder, for fear such an expression will be treated as an admission of guilt."[p. 142] However, certain states have begun to change these evidentiary rules.
The authors recount Delta Air Lines handling of the 1986 crash. In an adaptation of the Japanese practice, Delta sent an employee to attend each bereaved family. These employees helped the families handle crash-related matters, from funeral planning to recovering personal effects from the crash victim, and generally offered a friendly, sympathetic ear. As a result of this approach there were substantially fewer lawsuits filed against Delta than there normally are in such cases. Unfortunately, for the families who did file suit, these friendly Delta employees also turned out to be company informants. "According to the attorney for one plaintiff, Delta and its insurance carriers used information that they obtained from grieving families against them in subsequent settlement negotiations."[p. 143]
Apologies are most effective when the parties have a close relationship. However, the airline cases shows that it is possible to create close relationships, and so enhance the effect of an apology. Apologies are also most effective when they are well-timed and combined with compensation. An apology alone will not substitute for compensation when there is substantial injury. Apologies should be prompt. They should be offered soon after the injury occurs or after the grievance is expressed.