Several years ago, I was still somewhat new to mediation and I had been working with the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center and Sumner Mediation Services doing victim/offender as well as civil mediations. I had noticed several times how often apology can be an impasse breaker no matter the subject.
A transformative moment happened during one particular mediation between a pastor of a church and a former congregant, who had become disaffected with the church and was now disrespecting and disparaging the pastor. The pastor had gone to the police to try to get the young man to stay away and not bother the other congregants as they came to church. We spent an hour or so going through both sides and had been able to address some of the technical issues and turn it into an agreement, including that the young man would not trespass or bother other church goers. I had assumed that we were going to be wrapping it up soon when unexpectedly the pastor turns to me with tears in his eyes and says "I am a third degree black belt, please help me".
This came out of the blue and in my haste to get the agreement down on paper I had failed to notice the underlying interest for the pastor. He was deeply hurt and angry that this young man, who he used to think of almost as a son, had rejected him and was now degrading him to others. The pastor seemed to be saying that his emotions were too unresolved and that if the young man didn't stop, he was afraid he might really lose his temper and hurt him.
I decided to set aside the agreement for a moment and began to ask the young man if this was the first time he had seen the effect of his taunting on the pastor. Even though the young man was extremely proud and defiant in his new beliefs, he seemed to recognize the pain his actions had brought. It took some more time, but at one point, the young man came forth with a sincere apology. The pastor's face went from a pained and angry sadness to full relief. It was as if the world was right again and no agreement on trespassing would have ever achieved the same thing.
This really stayed with me and soon after that mediation, I took a wonderful course at Lipscomb University's Institute for Conflict Management on apology that further deepened my appreciation. The book assigned to this course was called "On Apology" by Aaron Lazare. Lazare writes that there are good and bad apologies and that bad apologies can make a situation worse, but good apologies can be transformative and even help make forgiveness easier. There are five elements of a good apology. The first is to acknowledge the offense by "acknowledging the offending behaviors in adequate detail". The second element is to offer explanation, but make sure it doesn't sound like an excuse. Then it is good to show remorse with the actual words of apology and even a bit of "self scolding" and genuineness. The fourth element is to make reparations by offering a promise of future action or a way to repair what damage may have been done. And finally the element of timing can be crucial. A good apology at the wrong time, such as too early or too late, can misfire, but at the right time, it is more likely to be accepted.
It is obviously difficult to have all elements happening at once in the midst of a mediation, but the common theme across all elements was sincerity. I understand that apology does not need to be a part of every mediation for it to be successful. It does seem, however, that there might be more opportunities than we realize to explore that option, especially given its transformative power.