Insights into the Art of Apology

NPR broadcast a very interesting story this week on the art of apology, exploring what makes or breaks an effective apology: “A Case Study in How to Apologize for a War  Crime.” In this case, there were two attempts to apologize–the first further angered the victims, the second was even better than expected.

The backdrop was World War II, when American soldiers were imprisoned in Japan and suffered under conditions which violated the Geneva Convention. In 2009, the Japanese ambassador attempted to apologize to a room full of former POWs, but the wording was so weak that it prompted half the soldiers in the audience to turn their backs on the speakers. A good apology is specific, but this one was vague, e.g., apologizing “to all those who lost their lives in the war.” It did not say for what the speaker was apologizing.

One of the soldiers, James Murphy, still traumatized from his horrific abuse laboring in the copper mines of Mitsubishi, said he wanted to hear something along the lines of, “Sorry and that you won’t do it again.”

In this case, the “mediator” (the story refers to her as “the apology broker”) was a woman, Kinue Tokudome, who had grown up in Japan but lived in the U.S. She discerned the difference between the Japanese idea of apology — “soaked in shame” — and the POWs’ desire for an acknowledgement of the wrongs done to them. She was able to arrange for Mitsubishi executives to apologize to POWs imprisoned there. Mitsubishi had previously refused to apologize, contending that to admit the history of forced labor would be to saddle Japan with a centuries-long “burden of the soul.” But the year before last, Mitsubishi executives met with James Murphy and a few other POWs still alive, and Mitsubishi senior executive Hikari Kimura said, “When I understand the sad truth of the matter, I feel a pained sense of ethical responsibility as a fellow human being.” Then all the executives bowed. Mr. Murphy said it “was almost embarrassing” how much feeling they put into it.

In this case, the offender made an incorrect assumption about what an “apology” would say, or what the victim wanted to hear. The bi-cultural woman who served as “the apology broker” was able to identify the crossed signals and facilitate an effective apology. Sometimes, just finding out what the victim needs to hear can prompt a good apology.

MSU Mediation Described

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Young, who was appointed by Interim MSU President John Engler to represent MSU in defending lawsuits brought by hundreds of people abused by former MSU sports doctor Larry Nasser, described yesterday more about the mediation that settled those lawsuits last week. He said in an interview with Tim Skubick that the plaintiffs initially demanded “over a billion” dollars, but that the $500 million settlement figure was the right number. He wouldn’t explain why it was the right number, “but I’m confident really there was a very good basis for that number.”

Parties to mediation usually do not reveal details of the mediation, like a party’s opening demand. In fact, Michigan Court Rule 2.412 declares that all statements made in mediation are confidential, unless they fit into an exception. Justice Young is obviously aware of confidentiality (“I can’t tell you why”) but has a narrower view than most of what is and isn’t confidential, thus giving us outsiders a peek into an important mediation.

MSU Mediation Ends With Agreement

The settlement announced yesterday between Michigan State University and 332 assault victims of MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar has to be one of the largest mediated settlements ever: $500 million. The parties whose lawsuits were in federal court attempted mediation last year, reaching a partial agreement. After Nassar was sentenced this past January, all of the parties agreed to mediation with a different mediator, former federal judge Layn Phillips. The mediation lasted just a couple of weeks.

The settlement involves only money. While survivors spoke with disappointment afterwards about other goals not met – from changing the MSU culture to receiving an apology — , in the end they must have decided to pursue those goals outside of mediation, rather than prolong the mediation.

One question on Michigan taxpayers’ minds: where will MSU come up with the money? Is it possible that the University has insurance coverage this broad? Or will it, as a public institution, look to the State for help?

Or is MSU hoping to raise the money from alumni? Is it just a coincidence that we received a phone call today from MSU asking for a donation? Having an alum in the family, we contribute annually – every December. So why is MSU calling us in May, just days after promising a half billion dollars to lawsuit plaintiffs? The student caller insisted there was no connection — of course.

Court-Ordered Apologies

What is the value of a judge-ordered apology? Last year, we considered a judge’s order that a state official apologize to Flint residents for her role in perpetuating the Flint water crisis.

This week, another Michigan judge has ordered a defendant to apologize, but this time the recipients of the apology are court staff – and the judge himself. The Midland Daily News reports that Midland County Circuit Court Judge Michael Beale ordered Chad Sandlow to write letters of apology to two deputies as well as the sentencing judge himself, as part of his sentence for causing a courtroom scuffle a few months ago. While appearing before Judge Beale in February to be arraigned for his son’s truancy, Mr. Sandlow reportedly refused to remove his hat or approach the bench, then failed to cooperate with court officers as they arrested him. This week he was sentenced on two counts of resisting and obstructing.

An integral component of an effective apology is remorse, which is rarely genuine when a party is compelled to apologize – think of a child who is ordered by an adult to apologize to a sibling. When a court orders an apology, there’s little likelihood of sincere remorse, and more likelihood that the apology is a form of punishment. But does it still have some value?

My parents used to order me to my room, after a sassy remark, “until I was ready to apologize.” Maybe the judge could try a version of this by ordering Mr. Sandlow to stay in jail until he’s ready to apologize. Would that at least make it voluntary? A genuine apology has to come from the heart, and the court cannot order a defendant to have a change of heart. Mr. Sandlow will have to decide that on his own – whether or not he writes those apologies.

Southern Baptist Leader’s Apology Falls Short

Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and influential leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, has been in the news lately for his views on biblical commands for wives who are victims of domestic violence, and other comments he has made about women over the last twenty years.

Last week, he issued a statement of apology; here’s the heart of it (click here for the full text):

“I wish to apologize to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity. We live in a world of hurt and sorrow, and the last thing that I need to do is add to anyone’s heartache. Please forgive the failure to be as thoughtful and careful in my extemporaneous expression as I should have been.”

It’s no wonder that, as one Baptist woman commented, the apology “felt incomplete.” Recognizing that it’s difficult to do public apologies well, and that we all need help crafting effective apologies, it’s worth analyzing why this one doesn’t do the job. A couple of word choices stand out:

  • “by anything I have said” – Either Dr. Patterson is unaware of what he said that was offensive, or he disagrees, but in either case, the vagueness of this phrase leaves his audience wondering whether he “gets it.” One of the “7 A’s of Confession” of Peacemaker Ministries is to “Admit specifically” – the apology needs to express specifically the harmful action done. This apology does not do that.
  • “my extemporaneous expression” – This sounds like an excuse; the implication is that he shouldn’t be held too responsible for comments that he made on the fly, that he didn’t have time to reflect on. What the speaker intends as an explanation, is heard as an excuse. Excuses do not belong in apologies, and serve to undercut them. A good apology invites the listener to ask questions, and only then may the speaker offer an explanation. This observation goes to his comment about translating a Hebrew term as well — almost sounds like he’s blaming the listener for not understanding his goal.

A couple of other things make this an ineffective apology:

  • His apology is to “every woman,” but men were also hurt by his actions, as indicated by the letter sent to the Seminary board regarding Dr. Patterson. Another of the “7 A’s of Confession” is to “Address everyone involved;” he missed half the audience.
  • Where are the consequences? A good apology includes some indication of how the speaker will rectify the wrong. He promises to pray, but that’s not enough to make this apology work. Elsewhere it’s been announced that he is calling for a special meeting of the board of trustees of his institution, which may result in more follow-up, but it would have been good to include in the apology any plans to, as the “7 A’s of confession” call it, “Alter behavior.”

It takes courage and effort to make a good apology, the kind that brings healing (see James 5:16). Dr. Patterson made the effort, and we can all learn from it.


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