The mediation session between Sarah* and Sandra* had gone well so far, but there hadn’t been quite the breakthrough that I’d hoped for. Sarah had admitted posting some things on social media about her work situation and had apologised to Sandra for this and for not talking to her directly. These were encouraging signs.

However, Sandra had not acknowledged the apology and I was starting to feel tired with the effort of encouraging them to hear one another more fully. I decided to call a coffee break and then check in with each of them individually. Privately, I asked them how they felt it was going, and reminded them of what they had said they wanted to get out of the joint session when we’d met previously.

Both agreed that they wanted to continue.

When I restarted the joint meeting, Sandra turned to Sarah and issued a whole-hearted and unqualified apology. Immediately, the tension began to dissolve and the conversation between them opened up.

They both shared openly what had happened and I was able to gradually guide them towards thinking about the future and how they wanted to move forwards. They reached a workable agreement and when I contacted them again a year later, they were happily working together.

In reflecting on this case, I was struck by the power of a true apology and also how rare it is. Courageously, Sarah had taken the first steps. Because it was genuine, it had the effect of transforming the situation once Sandra was able to hear it. So what makes a true apology?

These are some of the key elements. You can tell a genuine apology when it:

  • Comes from the heart, not from the head. This is hard to quantify but you know it when you see it and hear it.

  • Acknowledges the harm done to the other person or people.

  • Accepts and acknowledges your part in the situation – not necessarily taking full responsibility but admitting that you had a part to play.

  • Has no qualifications or justifications attached to it.

  • Comes with a willingness to hear the other person’s perspective. Again this is hard to quantify but it will emerge in the conversation whether or not this willingness is present.

  • Is offered voluntarily, never ‘required’.

The reverse is also true, you can recognise an apology that is not genuine when:

  • The body language betrays a lack of respect, such as arms folded, rolling eyes, tone of voice, tutting, despite the person ‘saying the right thing’.

  • There is no acknowledgement of harm.

  • The person does not accept the part they played in the situation.

  • They say things like, “I’m sorry if you felt that way…”, “I’m sorry it’s come to this but….” . These phrases are usually followed by an explanation, justification or qualification about why they behaved the way they did.

  • There is a lack of willingness to really hear the other’s perspective.

I also started to reflect on why saying sorry is so hard for most of us and I think there are a number of reasons for this.

We operate in a society that values expressions of strength and apologising is often seen as admitting failure.

As children, many of us were forced to apologise to our siblings or to friends before we were ready and before we were given a chance to tell our story. This was done with the best of intentions, usually to teach us social skills, and yet for many of us it felt deeply unfair because what we really needed was to be heard and acknowledged ourselves. The ‘sorry’ was probably needed, but later on when we’d had a chance to calm down and been listened to.

Finally, many of us have a deep rooted fear that in some way we are ‘wrong’, a failure, not good enough, an imposter and so on. At a subconscious level, we confuse admitting that we’ve made a mistake and done something we regret, with admitting that we’re fundamentally wrong as a person, something that deep-down many of us fear anyway. 

A true apology comes from a place of strength and it takes tremendous courage and discipline. Never doubt the power it can have to transform a relationship.


*Not their real names. Names and some other details have been changed to protect identity.