Vail Daily column: I am sorry: The key to healing
As it happens, I have amassed a readership for this Open Bar column. It is both humbling and thrilling to not only know that people are tuning in to my musings, but that they reach out to comment on thoughts that resonated with them. One such reader appreciated the sentiments in my last column regarding the outsized power of the words “thank you.” However, he was quick to point out that, as important as those two words are, they are eclipsed by three words that can work miracles: “I am sorry.” I could not help but agree. Were those words more frequently spoken, the need for legal services would dwindle and a legion of brilliant attorneys would be released to turn their talents to something more constructive. It is a blissful dream.
Blinded by Emotion
The human race is capable of staggering levels of physical and emotional destruction. Blinded by flashes of emotion, we wreak havoc upon those in our path, which may include loved ones, acquaintances, business partners, competitors or complete strangers. In non-sociopaths, those actions are immediately regretted, regardless of whether they caused actual physical or psychological harm. Yet, sheepish about our transgressions and stubborn, we feign that we were in the right. Or, even more insidiously, we convince ourselves that we were not wrong when any objective observer would vehemently disagree. Self-deception is all too easy. We double down on our mistakes and, in the process, gamble with our reputations and relationships. It is a dangerous business.
The road to salvation begins, but does not end, with a heartfelt “I am sorry.” That message is best conveyed if you actually believe the sentiment and have something for which to apologize. A token apology can be worse than none at all, as can a reputation for giving automatic apologies. It is best to avoid the sort of “I’m sorry” we mumble when we simply want to be done with the situation. As in any beneficial human interaction, eye contact and other forms of engagement are key. You are attempting to repair damage that you have caused and the first opportunity to make amends is the best chance to make a positive impact.
From a moral and social perspective, there is no question that if you do something wrong, then you must apologize. But the legal system, as it is wont to do, morphs what should be decent human behavior into gamesmanship. When a wrong is committed, the law provides a strong incentive to deny the bad action. Expressions of remorse are viewed as admissions of guilt. The economic realities of a lawsuit are such that obstinate refusal to admit wrongdoing can be a successful legal strategy. Not only does the burden of proof rest with the plaintiff, automatically giving the defendant a slight advantage, but there are significant financial and emotional costs to pursuing a lawsuit to its logical conclusion. A wealthy and unscrupulous defendant can simply sit back and deny while bleeding the opponent’s coffers dry. This is no doubt a risky legal play and is unquestionably morally abhorrent, but it happens so frequently that it can drive one insane.
A Safe Space
Mediation provides a means to express remorse without relinquishing legal rights. Confidential in nature, what is said within the confines of mediation (with some limited exceptions) cannot be used against the speaker in court. Thus, the mediation process provides a safe space for warring parties to directly connect, share their perspectives, and even make apologies. When serving as a mediator, it is not uncommon for me to hear variations on this theme: “I am truly sorry that the situation has gotten to this point, I just believe that I shouldn’t have to pay you the money you are claiming because you did (insert bad thing here).” Even though this is a qualified and not ideal apology, the simple fact of showing compassion and regret about the situation can be just the impetus needed to get the parties to resolve their differences.
However, as strongly as I believe in the power of mediation, I even more ardently believe that one needs to take responsibility for one’s mistakes. There is no shame in recognizing moments of weakness. Indeed, it takes one of great strength to do so. The only truly defensible position is to admit that you were wrong, offer a sincere “I am sorry,” and then offer to do whatever is in your power to rectify the matter. It may cost more in terms of short-term dollars, but the long-term benefits to your character and conscience are priceless.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm, and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.rkvlaw.com.