It’s a topic much discussed by mediators: should an apology be part of a mediation agreement? Should mediators press disputants for apologies? There’s no hard and fast rule about apologies, but we’re aware that they make a huge difference in human interaction, whether part of mediation or simply enacted in everyday life. Why are apologies so hard to offer if they have such a healing effect? And why is forgiveness so difficult when one is hurt?
Apology and forgiveness are two sides of a single offense or mistake, whether intentional or accidental. When someone hurts us, we may respond initially with anger and the desire for revenge. The more we think about the hurt, the more it grows, fed by feelings of powerlessness. We may react further by avoiding the other person, declaring “war” against him or her, and even drawing others into the conflict. The physiological effect is devastating, resulting in depression and anxiety, lost sleep and unhealthy levels of stress.
As we play the blame game, we accuse others of something we believe they have done to us. We insist that they are the cause of our misery and in the process make ourselves feel worse. Blaming others becomes a habit, sinking us further into the victim role. If we believe that someone else is responsible for our well being, we actually disempower ourselves, giving other people control over how we feel.
Feeling hurt or wounded is a life experience that nearly everyone has to deal with at some time or other. Getting stuck in feelings of hurt and blame, however, is to give up responsibility for what we are feeling. We invest in holding on to our pain so that we can prove that “I am right and he is wrong.” When we hold on to our pain in this way, we further hurt ourselves by preventing emotional growth.
But how to escape from this deep well of hurt? Experts tell us that we can choose to give up our pain by becoming aware of what motivated the hurtful person and by assessing our own emotional baggage. If we’re ready to give up the role of innocent victim, we may be ready to forgive. Victim-offender reconciliation is a form of mediation which makes specific use of this process of awareness and forgiveness. But these steps can be healing for anyone who chooses to get beyond blame.
Once forgiven, others may be willing to apologize. Sometimes apology comes first, making it easier to forgive. Physiologically, being on the receiving end of apology affects blood chemistry, slows the heart rate and calms one’s breathing. “An apology is that rare act that restores strength through an act of surrender”(Time, March 20, 2009).
An excellent resource on learning how to forgive is “Finding Forgiveness: a 7 Step Program for Letting Go of Anger and Bitterness” by Dr. Eileen R. Borris-Dunchunstang. Another is Dare to Forgive by Dr. Edward Hollowell. The process of mediation can be an exercise in forgiveness and apology as disputants hear each other’s stories and work together toward a mutual solution. Regardless of whether apology emerges, mediation is the preferred form of dispute resolution where disputants must continue to interact with each other on a daily basis. For further information, go to www.mediateadams.org
Janet M. Powers is Presiding Officer of Mediation Services of Adams County and Professor Emerita at Gettysburg College.