Recently, I mediated a heavily litigated divorce case. At first, the mediation felt like it was going nowhere—both parties were emotionally charged, especially the wife who was searing with anger. I listened carefully to what she was saying and heard the hurt she was feeling from her husband’s infidelity. I suspected the husband had never apologized and that the wife needed him to say, “I am sorry,” in order to move forward. I expressed my opinion to the husband. Of course, his initial reaction was “no way.” Once it was apparent that the wife was not negotiating and that an impasse was imminent, the husband decided he would do anything to get the case settled. He finally gave the wife the sincere apology she needed. It was like magic. The case was fully settled four hours later.

What’s in an Apology?

Over the years I’ve witnessed a myriad of reasons why parties do not want to apologize, including baseless pride and contemptible guilt. More practically, sometimes the party is concerned their apology will weaken their negotiating position.

In mediation, a genuine apology is not an admission of guilt or a part of the actual problem-solving process. Rather, it’s a means to set aside defensiveness triggered by old wounds and level the playing field. Ideally, after a successful apology, both parties feel empowered to put the past in the past and move forward discussing their interests openly and fairly.

Wellness coach Elizabeth Scott explains, “Apologies re-establish dignity for those you hurt. Letting the injured party know that you know it was your fault, not theirs, helps them feel better, and it helps them save face.”1 An apology has the power to enable the injured party to regain their sense of worth and to find their voice at the table.

If your client is ready to settle the case you may want to suggest an old-fashioned apology. Here are some insights on apologizing which can help the parties break through their stalemate:

  • The decision to apologize can be an uncomfortable one to reach. Remind your clients that owning up to whatever role they played in the conflict can feel like a weight being lifted, freeing both parties to move forward.
  • While this may not occur in every mediation, sometimes both parties feel deserving of an apology. When appropriate, encourage both clients to express their remorse and regret. However, author Elizabeth Scott suggests that trying to evoke an apology from the other person is a “manipulative tactic that sometimes backfires.” She recommends that people apologize for their own peace of mind and the other person may be inspired to do the same. She cautions not to apologize just because you want an apology in return.
  • Taking responsibility means acknowledging the hurt you’ve caused the other person without shifting the blame to them. Saying, “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt because I yelled at you,” is not sufficient. Alternatively, saying, “I know my words were hurtful and that I scared you when I yelled. I’m sorry,” clearly demonstrates the first party is taking ownership for hurting the second with their words and actions.
  • Expressing regret elevates the sincerity of an apology. Adding, “I wish I could take it back,” or “I wish I had thought of your feelings as well as mine,” makes for a more complete and empathetic apology.

While the goal of encouraging an apology is to improve your client’s chances of forward motion, it’s important to note that they do not always yield instantaneous results—some of us need longer than others to process and accept an apology. Regardless, the healing benefits are undeniable, and apologies remain a productive tool for settling cases.

As Beverly Engel writes in her book, The Power of Apology, “Almost like magic, an apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships, soothe wounds and heal broken hearts… It is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. While an apology cannot undo harmful past actions, if done sincerely and effectively, it can undo the negative effects of those actions.”2

One of the best aspects of mediation is its informal nature. When I sense something needs to be done to settle a case, such as recommending an apology, the mediated dialogue allows us to speak more openly, hence productively. When you are ready to settle your family law case, I am here to help with out-of-the-box solutions. My 18 years of litigation experience and six years of exclusive divorce mediation make me uniquely qualified to help you and your clients reach a creative settlement amicably and expeditiously.