Due to overuse, “I’m sorry” can often feel empty for a person that has been wronged. However, a sincere apology given with regret and restitution can resolve more than the dispute at hand in mediation.

An apology can make or break awful situations
In our imperfect world, it is inevitable that we all do something that can be construed as offensive to someone at some point in time. Wrongdoings can range from a careless word, to actions that can permanently damage relationships or even lives. Sometimes, saying “I’m sorry” can quickly solve offenses, but in other circumstances, it does not suffice. Depending on its delivery, an apology can turn an awful situation around, or it could make it worse. A heartfelt apology can change lives; for instance, an 18-year-old drunk driver named Takunda Mavima has been forgiven by the family of one of his victims after he apologised to them in court. “I’m so sorry that I took two bright, intelligent, wonderful people out of this world…. I wish… I’m so sorry,” he tearfully told them. As an incredible sign of acceptance of the apology, the father and the sister of his victim appealed to the judge to lighten his sentence.

There are also examples of insincere ways to offer mea culpa. For instance, the apology given by broadcaster Allan Jones to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on comments about her late father was met with scrutiny. Other famous people who have been criticised for insincere apologies include Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant and U.S. politician Anthony Weiner.

These various examples bring me to a question: What makes a genuine apology? If it can truly reverse horrific situations like Mavima’s, then it is useful to know its elements for mediation.

This is what a genuine apology looks like
The need to apologise to someone begins when the offender has acknowledged the wrongdoing they have done. The realisation makes them feel troubled, with feelings of regret and shame for what has happened. There is also the urge to take responsibility for it. This means recognising the feelings of the person who was hurt, talking about it with them and not putting down their reaction. Doing so will only make the apology sound artificial, and self-centered. To avoid insincerity, an apology should not contain the words “if” and “but.” Saying “I’m sorry if I offended you” implies that there is doubt whether the offense had truly been wrong. On the other hand, giving out an apology with the word “but” appears more as an excuse. A genuine apology should be specific, describing the wrong that has been done and bearing responsibility for it. A true apology comes after insight and empathy.

After recognising the feelings of the hurt person, ways to correct the mistake or restore the situation should be offered. Restoration may entail a change in behaviour, so that the offensive action is not repeated. For situations where an object owned by someone has been broken, maybe it can be replaced.

The process of giving out an apology can include asking for forgiveness, but this has to be approached with caution. It can appear as a demand of the offender to assuage his guilt from the person who has been wronged. Forgiveness comes with insight and time. Essentially, the process of offering a genuine apology is described by Aaron Lazare (1995) as an “exchange of shame and power”. The person offering the apology takes on shame as they admit that there is nothing that can be done to undo the wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the position of power is with the other person, who can choose whether or not to accept the apology. Acceptance and forgiveness may not be immediate, however.

Mediation and its resemblance to a heartfelt apology
In litigation, an apology is often discouraged because it can be seen as an admission of liability. The law itself is bent on establishing whether or not a claim is successful. There is a winning and losing side to the case, which fosters the use of defences or excuses to protect the wrongdoer. Costs follow the event in civil matters.

Thankfully, the legal system does not have to be the only way to resolve disputes. Mediation offers the perfect opportunity to proffer a sincere apology. During the mediation process, there is the canvassing of any wrongdoing. The mediator encourages both sides to talk about their concerns while everyone listens. Everyone has the chance to then acknowledge the perspectives and feelings of one another. As a result, the participants gain a deeper understanding about each other and their point of view. This can pave the way toward negotiation and agreement on mutually-satisfying outcomes. Once a resolution has been reached, the mediator prepares a settlement document based on the agreement, which can become legally enforceable. It may not even need to note or record the apology, which has already been understood and accepted.

As mentioned above, the apology given by Takunda Mavima led the family of the victim to plead his sentence before the judge. This displays the power of genuine apology to turn the most awful situations around. In mediation, a sincere apology can help heal the wound to achieve an outcome or agreement and preserve the relationship. It can also restore an otherwise permanently damaged relationship, making possible a continued and ongoing relationship into the future – a better outcome for everyone.