Apologies: Repairing Relationships, Creating Interpersonal Peace

Jennifer Robbennolt

Jennifer Robbennolt

Apologies can resolve legal disputes ranging from personal injury cases to wrongful firings, according to University of Illinois’s Jennifer Robbennolt.

Contrary to fears that this approach can increase liability and ill-will, she suggests that admissions of guilt and remorse provide plaintiffs or “wronged” parties a sense of satisfaction, fairness, and forgiveness that enable settlement and reduce monetary damage awards.

Robbbenolt asked 556 volunteers to serve as plaintiffs and disclose their reactions to an experimental scenario, with differing hypothetical communication opportunities with the offender and varied evidentiary rule governing the admissibility of the offender’s statement.

Participants evaluated “settlement levers” including:

  • Reservation prices
  • Aspirations
  • “Fair” settlement amounts

In this lab study, apologies enabled injured parties to modify their perceptions of the situation and the offender, so they became more willing to participate in settlement discussions.
In addition, apologies changed the values injured parties’ assigned to settlement levers, so there was increased likelihood of settling the “case.”

The type of apologies and the situational context moderate the their impact on the likelihood of case settlement.
Apologies that acknowledge responsibility and “blame” are more influential than apologies that merely express sympathy, but accept no responsibility.
Acknowledging accountability reduces the injured party’s anger and increases willingness to accept a settlement and moves the incident toward tangible and emotional “closure.”

Janelle Barlow

Janelle Barlow

Apologies are a well-known tactic to handle complaints in customer service settings, where “every complaint is a gift,” according to Janelle Barlow of TMI and Claus Møller.

Claus Møller

Claus Møller

They reframe complaints as valuable feedback that point out a gap between customer requirements and business performance, and can point to imperative changes in products, services, and market focus.

Benjamin Ho

Benjamin Ho

In addition, medical settings have found that apologies have prevented medical malpractice cases, sped settlement and reduced financial awards, according to Cornell’s Benjamin Ho.

Although plaintiffs in Robbenholt’s study responded favorably to apologies, another of her studies demonstrated that lawyers indicate continuing concern that apologies are an admission of guilt that can be used to leverage bigger settlements.

This difference may come from legal training and from financial disincentives such as hourly fees or contingency arrangements, for some attorneys to settle a case quickly.
The power of apology has been acknowledged in at least thirty-five U.S. states, where statutes make some apologetic statements inadmissible at trial.

-*How do you determine when apologies are likely to repair a relationship and lead to “closure”?
-*What are the signs that apologies can deepen an interpersonal rupture?

 -*Please consider following  www.kathrynwelds.com and @kathrynwelds

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