Sorry seems to be the hardest word… Or is it?


I was listening to the radio recently and Elton John’s famous song ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ was playing. I hear a lot of apologies in my job as a workplace mediator. So the song made me reflect on whether “sorry” really is such a difficult word to say.

The non-apology apology

There are lots of different ways to apologise, and not apologise. The modern day political or PR apology of “I’m sorry if I caused offence” or “I’m sorry that you feel like that,” are often branded as a ‘non-apology apology’. This is because the person is using the word ‘sorry’ but not admitting any wrongdoing or responsibility for their actions.

So why is an apology difficult?

In my workplace mediation experience, I see a number of factors at play when people have difficult and courageous conversations with each other. People don’t like to admit mistakes, often for fear of looking weak, losing ‘power’, or not wanting to accept their part to play in the dispute. They don’t want to appear vulnerable and they often struggle to feel empathy with the other person. Thus the idea of saying sorry can bring up some very personal feelings about their own experiences of making apologies.

What we can learn from mediation

However, I have heard many genuine apologies in the safe and confidential space of a workplace mediation, and I think there are a number of interesting learning points to draw from this. In a recent case, one colleague described to his boss the pain he had endured by a dismissive comment about his contribution to the team. Not only did the manager apologise, but he described how the same thing had happened to him at a previous job and he was upset to hear that he was repeating the same mistake. This honest apology changed the dynamic of the conversation because it was heartfelt and therefore paved the way for both sides to demonstrate empathy for the other.

In another mediation case, a CEO apologised to one of her members of staff. Interestingly, the staff member refused to accept the apology. This reminded me that an apology is a two-way street – it is about giving as well as accepting the apology.

Finally, I recall a mediation between two teachers, where one said she would like to apologise to her Head of Department. I asked the Head if this was what he was looking for. He said no. We need to remember that not everyone is looking for an apology and that hearing the word ‘sorry’ is sometimes not necessary or sufficient in resolving a conflict.

We have to understand each person’s individual needs relating to an apology and how these can change over time. At the beginning of mediation, there may be a request for a written apology to the whole department. But as the day of mediation progresses and parties get clarity about what has contributed to their conflict, how their perceptions of the same situation differ, and how the relationship breakdown has affected them both, they may not need that particular apology anymore. This is because they understand each other better and are able to have empathy for each other. That can be more powerful than the word “sorry.”

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