Sorry, does seem to be the hardest word to say.


noun:  regretful acknowledgement of an inappropriate action or failure

For most of us, an apology is the start to a corrective process, yet it is the hardest message to convey. This is much to do with the emotional overtones of accepting that a failure has happened. Acknowledging any failure is not something we wish to share, and for some people it feels that they are exposing an organisations, or individual, weakness.

The Child Scenario:

Imagine that a child damages his neighbour's house. During some 'kick around' football in his garden, Henry, age eleven, hits a hard swerving  ‘power-shot’ with his ball, that ends with the ball going through an open window of his neighbour house. There is a crashing sound heard during the incident. What should Henry do?  Knowing that Mr Cleary, the homeowner, often leaves the back ‘French windows’ unlocked,  Henry could sneak into Mr.Cleary's house and retrieve the ball before Mr.Cleary gets home from work; and hoping that Mr.Cleary won't notice.

In tears, Henry enters his own home to tell his mother what has happened. They talk about it and decide that the right thing for Henry to do is to apologise and make amends. Upon seeing Mr.Cleary arrive home, Henry is to go directly to Mr.Cleary's house, say he is sorry for any damage he may have caused, offer to pay, and promise that he won't play football in a way that might risk damaging items in or around Mr.Cleary's house again.

Now imagine instead that an adult damages his neighbour's property . . . . .

The Adult Scenario:

Mr.Tiller has long dreamed of landscaping the back garden introducing an elegant rock garden, accented by a small hill. As part of a project, he borders the garden with expensive exotic plants and flower beds, set against his boundary fence adjoining the neighbour’s gardens. It is known that it cost him most of the legacy monies left by his mother.

In early spring, Mr.Robinson (the next-door neighbour) decides to clean the paving slabs adjoining Mr.Tillers  grounds. Using a pungent-smelling acid-based chemical, he liberally (more than recommended on the container) sprays the slabs in his garden and the fencing, which are covered in green mould. The spray mix seeps through the small cracks in the wooden boundary fence. Later he realises from the bleaching of the lower parts on the fence he has used far too much, but at least the slabs look good. He decides to dilute with water the slabs and spray away any residule acid. During the soakaway, it drains under the fence into one of  Mr.Tillers flowerbeds. It rained later that afternoon so any signs of Mr.Robinsons’s little project are no longer evident. As an avid gardener, Mr.Robinson  realises his actions could have contaminated Mr.Tiller's flowerbed soil and some of his expensive plants. At this stage, he could accept the ramifications of his actions, talk with Mr.Tiller, apologise and offer to make good if there is a long term effect on the flowerbeds. Equally, he could avoid the situation and hope that there is no come back on him.

A month later Mr.Tiller is tendering his plants and notices that his border plants are dying despite his efforts in good garden practices. He recollects the day when his neighbour was using the foul-smelling chemical. As he scrapes away the soil from the fence he sees the discolouration on the lower part of the fencing.

During an ‘over the fence’ interaction, Mr.Tiller tentatively mentions the ‘problem’ that he is having with his flowerbeds, as he has thoughts about what has happened. He doesn't want to cause a neighbourly rift, by directly accusing Mr.Robinson of causing the damage.  Mr.Robinson  becomes all defensive, introducing a denial that it cannot be anything to do with him.

Even at that stage Mr.Robinson could have acknowledged that his actions might have caused the damage and introduced an apology rather than flat denial. As part of the restoration, he could have offered to help Mr.Tiller put things right. After all, Mr.Robinson had not deliberately done anything with the intent to damage Mr.Tillers property. 

How different are the ways we counsel children and adults to act when they have injured others?  Parents, or at least good parents, teach children to take responsibility when they have wronged another:  'Apologise and make amends'. In contrast, when it comes to adults,  the legal profession typically counsels the opposite. Most legals focus on how to deny responsibility, including what defence strategy a client might have against a claim and how to react to any counterclaims. If a member of the legal profession contemplates an apology, it may well be with a sceptical eye: "Don't risk an apology, it will just create liability". The former does not consider the ‘Compensation Act 2006, Section 2’ in which it clearly states in the guidance for judges in English Courts, ‘An apology, offer of treatment or another redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty’.

While the solicitor-client relationship is, of course, different from the parent-child relationship, the fact that parents frequently advise children to apologise, but that lawyers rarely advise clients to apologise,' ought to give us pause in our thinking. The failure to apologise can be a central factor in escalating conflict and compounding hurt. The longer the time lapse in not accepting responsibility, makes the hurt person more bitter, questioning all they had always believed was the correct response to an action and does not satisfy any journey route to restorative justice, or any closure.

If an apology is often in the best interest of children, why is it not in the best interest of adults?

Within the criminal justice system, 'an apology is arguably the most effective way for a defendant or other alleged violator of an accepted legal standard, duty or obligation, to demonstrate their assumed responsibility for a wrong committed. An apology will often signal a potential new beginning in the victim and perpetrators relationship and reduces the ‘anger’ of the situation.'  An apology should never be allowed to be used as a quick 'way out', for the individual or organisation to extract themselves from a difficult conversation or dispute. A true apology should always be backed with corrective action and not just a hollow and vague statement of 'Lessons will be learned'. A statement we hear, too often, when organisations have been caught with (to use a metaphor) 'their pants around their ankles'.

Societies tend to respect individuals and organisations that ‘own up’ to their faults, admit mistakes, take responsibility for their conduct and offer an appropriate apology to any affected innocent persons. Laid bare, human errors are exposed through the sheer awkwardness of an apology,  but a  ‘well-formed’ apology implicitly will acknowledge wrongdoing, take responsibility and is an expression of regret or remorse.
I am from the innocent and quaint world of professional standards, where doing the ‘right’ thing was an absolute. My colleagues and I had to be a model example to the growing minds in our charge. It was a world of politeness, facing situations 'square on' and not politicking with peoples’ lives; where the reasoned argument would prevail. We were never naive to litigation, protecting others and losing face when mistakes were made. From early childhood, I had it instilled in me that honour plays an important part in my life, as the quality of knowing and doing what is morally right – in modern parlance ‘Doing the right thing !’. Avoidance and betrayal to the truth have never been remotely part of my life
Why do the Police very rarely apologise for their wayward actions?

This is the world we live in . . .