June 18, 2012

Strategic Negotiating: Is There Room For ‘I’m Sorry?’

It’s commonplace for one of my clients to say to another, “You should be sorry, you should tell me you’re sorry for what’s happening.” And most of the time, the listener tries to ignore or reject the notion of apologizing—saying “this is not my fault.”  But when that rare client responds with, “I am sorry,” I’ve seen the mood of an entire negotiation transform rapidly, in both people’s favor—making that moment a golden opportunity to build trust and empathy in negotiations.

And in this litigious age, where we consider our actions and statements in the terms of potential liability, it’s understandable that someone balks at the idea of saying ‘I’m sorry.’ To apologize is defined by Google as, “[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][to] express regret for something that one has done wrong” (emphasis mine). But I wonder if this view of apologizing is something that needs to change—that it may be too narrow a description. We seem to have lost the idea of apologizing out of sense of empathy, out of a sense of being part of circumstances which are hard for someone, and that to apologize could just be letting them know that you feel badly about it, too.

My professional ethics attorney told me years ago, “Never, ever let the words ‘I’m sorry’ come out of your mouth to a client.  I don’t care how you feel as a person, but never, ever do that.  It may be taken as an admission of fault and hence full liability.” At the time I thought how sad that was, because there are moments when something has gone awry, and really it’s no one’s fault, and to say ‘I’m sorry’ demonstrates that you’re not immune to the feelings of the people right there with you.

To see if a client can turn that request for an apology into a golden opportunity to build trust and empathy in their negotiations, I invite some of my clients to try on this larger view of what an apology can be, to see if they can genuinely connect to a sense of empathy for the dashed hopes, broken expectations, or the pain of their divorce—while not taking on responsibility for them.  I’ve sat with clients who have both cried with each other—both saying their history is too complicated to blame either of them for what’s happened.  They acknowledged to each other that they had regrets, that they knew they created their painful circumstances together, and then they turned to each other in empathy and said, ‘I’m sorry.’

And that statement to each other, alone, made all of their resulting negotiations run much more smoothly and efficiently, both of them resolved to work through the mediation process knowing the other person respected what they were going through.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Her intelligence goes without saying.

Unmani’s level of fluid skill and preparation with the name change process reveals her complete dedication for helping others find their way through the legal mazes of our society. Her intelligence goes without saying. I agree with previous clients’ testimonials about her kindness and empathy for her clients; you really do feel that she is invested in you. Couldn’t recommend her more…

- Scott Z.
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