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Simple apologies can solve a lot of problems

Published: Friday, July 26 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Recently, my wife and I had an encounter with a local business in which we were treated poorly and a few of our personal items ended up missing — most likely taken by people who either were employees of this company or of a company with which it partnered.

The name of this business isn’t of any consequence here. What is important is that I called and left a blistering voice mail that told of how violated I felt and how disappointed I was.

The next morning, the owner of the business returned my call. His tone was one of abject humility and horror at what had happened. He apologized several times, said he took full responsibility, cited some misunderstandings that sounded plausible and offered to reimburse me for all damages, if I would just give him a figure.

We never pursued the matter any further. The items weren’t that important, but the apology was.

I thought about this as I heard the story of Kate Barnett in Vinton County, Ohio. She returned to her house recently after two weeks away and found all of her furniture gone and the locks on her doors changed. It turned out a bank had mistakenly repossessed her house. The repo man was supposed to go to the house across the street, but he made a mistake.

Barnett isn’t even a customer of the bank that did this. When she presented them with an itemized list of her belongings, adding up to an estimated $18,000, she said the bank’s president refused to pay, “got firm” with her and said he wasn’t about to pay the retail price for the items.

She told a television reporter from the local 10TV News, “”It wouldn’t have been a big deal if they would step up and say, ‘I’m sorry. We will replace you stuff.’”

Instead, Barnett sounds like someone who now might not be satisfied until she gets a lot more out of the bank a simple replacement of her things.

What is the value of two simple words? As it turns out, our mothers were right when they forced us, as children, to confront those with whom we had disagreements and say, “I’m sorry.” At least, it probably saved a lot of problems down the road.

Three years ago, the California Bar Journal told the story of actor James Woods, who was on the warpath against a hospital he felt was negligent in the death of his brother. But then came a heartfelt apology from the hospital’s president, and Woods’ attitude changed. He agreed to a settlement that included a promise from the hospital to name a patient safety institute after his brother.

The bar journal story also referenced a series of studies by University of Illinois law professor Jennifer Robbennolt that found apologies helped in a range of cases involving medical malpractice, divorce, employment disputes and personal injury.

Unlike our mothers, a lot of lawyers, business leaders and others worry that apologies will just open the door for people who have visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. Not so, Robbennolt said. “Conventional wisdom has been to avoid apologies because they amount to an admission of guilt that can be damaging to defendants in court. But the studies suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases.”

People like to feel their concerns are taken seriously. My guess is most of us have an inclination to feel empathy for others who show sincere remorse. It might have something to do with all the regret we feel for our own dumb mistakes.

How powerful of a tool is an apology? Does it work in all aspects of life? That’s hard to say, although the experts believe it has to be perceived as heartfelt, honest and sincere. Often that means the apologizer still has to offer restitution of some sort.

It also means the jury is still out on politicians such as New York’s Anthony Weiner and Elliot Spitzer. Politics is not as easy to gauge as real life.

But having experienced both the anger of feeling aggrieved and the salve of an apology, I can attest that it works wonders.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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