Empathy, Apology and Forgiveness

Dorothy J. Della NoceOne of the ‘founder generation’ of transformative mediation, Dorothy J. Della Noce, has published an interesting piece on apology in the first issue of the Dutch journal, ConflictInzicht magazine.  It’s largely based  on research by Seiji Takaku, a report of which appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology, 141(4), 494-508 under the title, “The effects of apology and perspective taking on interpersonal forgiveness: A dissonance-attribution model of interpersonal forgiveness.”

For me, the key learning point is:

Empathy must be experienced by, and communicated by, both parties to the conflict, not simply one or the other. In other words, to be effective in resolving conflict, apology and forgiveness are best viewed as interactive processes, not simply one-sided speech events.

Here are excerpts from Della Noce’s discussion:

Takaku’s experiments showed that an offended party was more likely to accept an apology, and extend forgiveness, when that offended party had an opportunity to reflect on his or her own “imperfect nature” (p. 506).
[. . .]
Takaku’s research offers important insights on how apologies “work.” Mutual empathy is key. While the offer of an apology may be the result of, and an expression of, the offender’s empathy with the offended party, forgiveness requires empathy from the offended to the offender. Empathy must be experienced by, and communicated by, both parties to the conflict, not simply one or the other. In other words, to be effective in resolving conflict, apology and forgiveness are best viewed as interactive processes, not simply one-sided speech events.

Takaku’s research demonstrates that an offended party has the power to shift the nature of a conflict interaction by reflecting on his or her own “imperfect nature,” developing empathy for the offender, and thus being open to the process of apology and forgiveness. Some people can undertake such reflection on their own; others might need to be prompted toward reflection. However, Takaku also urged caution: care must be taken regarding who prompts the offended party to reflect on his or her own imperfections. For example, if the offending party makes the prompt, it would likely generate resistance on the part of the offended party and actually escalate the conflict.

Takaku’s research also suggests that there could be a benefit from “outsiders” to the conflict (such as friends and family, coaches, therapists, mediators, managers, and others) helping the apology-forgiveness interaction by encouraging empathic reflection on the part of the offended party. But the risk is that, if the prompt is too harsh, directive, insistent, or clumsy, it could generate resistance rather than reflection. I would suggest, on the basis of Takaku’s research, that an appropriate communication approach for such “outsiders” in these circumstances is actually a time-honored strategy for encouraging reflection without creating resistance — active listening (Rogers & Farson, 1987).

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