Never Being Able to Say You're Sorry: Barriers to Apology by Leaders in Group Conflicts
28 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2009 Last revised: 22 Oct 2009
Date Written: December 31, 2008
A timely apology can interrupt dangerous cycles of revenge-seeking and increase the level of trust between opposing groups, yet the effective use of apology by leaders in group conflicts is extremely rare. This article explores why this is so. It suggests that an effective apology requires a public speech act which manifests a sincere change of heart, and most leaders are prevented from recognizing the need for any such change by psychological processes that screen out needed information. Even if these processes are circumvented, psychological resistance to change, the operation of intra-group norms and competition serve to deter leaders from publicly acknowledging error.
The authors suggest three conditions that must be met before an apology is likely to be made and accepted in a group conflict: "Ripeness"- some degree of softening of negative attitudes and rhetoric on both sides of the conflict; a "Window of Opportunity" that permits the leader to limit the scope of the apology; and "Symbolic Communication," a culturally appropriate mix of words and ritual leading the offended group to experience the actions as the "reenactment of an archetypal narrative."
Keywords: apology, conflict, conflict resolution, group conflict, negotiation, violence, prevention
JEL Classification: D74, D78, Z13
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation