Mediation & apologies

Heard in mediation

In over 20,000 hours of mediation over 20 years, I have found each mediation to be memorably distinct. Frequently, however, each participant tells me that

‘If only the other participant/s would change the way they behave, there would be no need for this mediation.’

When I respond ‘I hear this quite often.’ there can be a heavily laden pause.

Almost as often, participants tell me

‘If only the other participant/s would apologise I would be able to look to the future with goodwill.’

I make a similar response; there is a similar pause.

Blame and vulnerability

What I hear above are two expressions of the same sentiment: the first includes blame; the second vulnerability; thoughts of blame and feelings of vulnerability. Generally, people blame others who they think of as having more influence on them than they themselves do. Generally, people feel vulnerable when they believe they are at risk of having/continuing to have low efficacy.

The person who blames another often thinks they have been provoked and coerced by the person they blame. The person who feels vulnerable often feels at risk of being provoked and coerced. Blame is self-protective: ‘I didn’t cause my misery; someone else did’. Vulnerability can also be seen to be self-protective: ‘I’m so hurt I shall keep myself safe from any risks at all.’

Does one person typically blame and the other typically feel vulnerable? In my experience, each blames the other and each feels vulnerable. It is the behaviour of each to assuage thoughts and feelings that differs.


This post considers some dynamics of apologising in mediation. I will be drawing on a conglomerate of a mediated apologies across a broad range of settings[1].

Scholars write thoroughly and length on apology[2]. I shall write briefly. I regard an apology is an offer of vulnerability in return for having caused or contributed to vulnerability. One person, having perceived their actions, and/or knowing that their actions have been perceived, to have contributed to exposing another’s vulnerability, creates their own vulnerability by  acknowledging and expressing remorse to the other. To become vulnerable is to have a diminished sense of self; reduced sense of efficacy.

Each participant is feeling vulnerable: one due to experiencing harm and humiliation; the other due to the shame of causing harm and humiliation.

Mimi & Eunice is written and drawn by Nina Paley

Mimi & Eunice is written and drawn by Nina Paley






Mediation overview

How can mediation provide the setting for person 1 and person 2 to address the wrong doing and move on with dignity? Whatever model of apology one uses, the action taken will include communication of affect, affiliation and affirmation.

Choosing the timing, the place and the circumstances of being vulnerable is to exercise influence.

People consider mediation when the personal costs and consequences of conflict they are experiencing are greater than the personal costs and consequences of attending mediation. During the initial separate session which I hold with all potential mediation participants, I listen for, among many things, the descriptions by each potential participant of how current and past disputes have been negotiated. And this is where another of those distinguishing commonalities arises: invariably participants have been involved in a power struggle entangled with a clash of rights. Over time, apparent progress has been achieved by capitulation due to exhaustion, hope, entreaty and threats. With sufficient capitulation compromise has been reached.

Compromises collapse

For a number of reasons, compromises are often brittle. People who reach a compromise are often more aware of what it is of their preferred outcome that they have not achieved than of what it is they have achieved. To add insult to injury, the same people are often more aware of what it is that the other person did achieve of their preferred outcome, than of what it is that they did not achieve. In addition, compromises often rely on an unstable balancing act due to being conditional on factors beyond participants’ influence. Compromises are therefore prone to collapse so disputes, re-energised by disappointment and often by fear, emerge as vitriolic as ever.

Power struggles; rights clash

Wielding authority invites another to wield authority and so a power-struggle ensues. Claiming entitlement invites a reciprocal claim of entitlement and so a clash of rights occurs.

When the currencies of conflict are power and rights, an apology risks being lost in the ether: a waste of current vulnerability and a risk to future vulnerability.

Interests meld

Mediators work in the currency of interests. A mediator asks open questions to assist participants to identify their interests. What are the interests of the person giving and the person receiving the apology?

The interests of a person making an apology, that is, their motivation, often include to restore equilibrium, to restore the reliability of expectations of fairness, conclusion, reputation, responsibility, to show contrition and to know that they have been heard sufficiently well to have connected with the other.

The motivations of the person receiving an apology can overlap with those of a person making an apology.  To return to equanimity from feeling vulnerable can include the need for the harm to be acknowledged; for the person making the apology to openly recognise their part in causing the harm and to undertake to behave differently in the future. The authenticity of both the speaker/writer and listener are fundamental to the process. That is from the perspective of the person receiving the apology puts their ‘self’ on the line in the interests of the ‘other’ restoring some of their efficacy. The person making the apology puts their ‘self’ on the line in the interests of an acceptance from the ‘other’ restoring their integrity.

Mediation mindset & apology

Mediation is a structured process of even-handed facilitation of identification of participants’ joint interests.

The process of mediation can be highly suited to the process of making and receiving an apology because each participant is ‘on the same page’; each becomes aware of their own and the other’s interests.

Mediation is an evenhanded facilitation of resolution of a dispute through joint interests so that participants can move on in their own interests. Mediation is facilitated listening that creates the alchemy that transforms the isolation of positions into the connection of interests. Intrinsically mediation suited to apology because mediation is interests based and apology is concerned with meeting the needs of the person who receives and the person who gives the apology/apologies.

My next post will consider managing apologies in Mediator’s Opening Comments.


[2] Allen and Carroll for example