Music to our ears

Written by Helen Clarke

Frequently an apology is part of the mediations and facilitations I am involved in. The giving of an apology can stumble if it is viewed solely in the legal realm – based more on a market transaction and less on a moral action. A genuine apology becomes part of both parties’ shared history and provides opportunities for their shared and/or separate futures.1

The purpose of the apology is not for the giver to be exonerated of the harm done, and forgiveness should not be required or expected from the receiver.2 Forgiveness is an act of compassion and is a way of shaping our mind to the future we want for ourselves. To forgive is to assume a larger identity than who you were when you were first hurt. David Whyte, in his book Consolations3 describes forgiveness as your larger identity putting an arm around your hurting self along with the memories of it, and the changed understanding of the one who hurt you.

A person who is capable of apologising needs a stable platform of self-worth. From there, they can see their mistakes as part of them, being an ever-changing complex self.4 Those who cannot apologise choose to preserve their current view of themselves.

In theory

An effective apology can be divided into four parts5: acknowledgement of the offence, the explanation, communicating various attitudes and behaviours, and reparation.  Preparing an apology may be compared to producing music – sometimes the composer may choose one instrument to produce a well composed piece of music, other times it is necessary to use additional instruments. Each of the four parts of an apology are summarised below.

  • The acknowledgement of the offence includes the parties involved, what occurred, the implications and acknowledgement that there was a violation of the social and/or moral contract between the parties.
  • The explanation provides an insight on the predictability of the behaviour, the responsibility of the parties, how to predict future safety, and plan what actions need to be taken to avoid future harm.
  • Next, communication of attitudes and behaviours such as remorse, forbearance, and sincerity. Remorse is where the apologiser accepts responsibility for the harm, and through communicating forbearance, the parties create a shared understanding that there is a resolve to refrain from such behaviours in the future. One is looking to the shared history and the other looking forward, facing the future.
  • Lastly, offering reparation shows the receiver of the apology, or society that the apology giver takes the grievance seriously and is willing to repair the harm done.

In practice

In October 2019, the Tuia Encounters 250 celebrated Aotearoa New Zealand’s Pacific voyaging heritage which included themes of Dual Heritage – Shared Future. Leading up to this event the British High Commissioner Laura Clarke met over a period of nine months with four Gisborne iwi including Ngati Oneone as the iwi wanted their history heard. In particular, they wanted to voice the story of Captain James Cook’s first encounters with the iwi, where nine members of their iwi were killed.

During the 2019 Gisborne commemorations, Ms. Clarke shared an expression of regret from the British Government to the iwi. She acknowledged the pain of those first encounters, and that the pain has not diminished over time. She recognized that the encounter went tragically wrong and extended her sympathy and regret to the Gisborne iwi. While the expression of regret stopped short of being an apology, it illustrates parts of the composition of an apology as described above.  It also provided for many members of the iwi, including Nick Tupara spokesperson for Ngati Oneone iwi a reason to be optimistic for continued dialogue and the possibility of a relationship between the iwi and the British Government working and growing together in the future. 

We can all learn from this example. Whether dealing with iwi or a neighbour or workmate, there is power in an apology. From not only listening but hearing what the other has to say so that relationships are better understood and a stronger foundation for future interactions is built.

About the author

Helen is a Resolution Facilitator at FairWay, working in our Commercial Services. As part of this role, Helen facilitates complaints and mediates a range of disputes.

Helen has a background in health, education and has been a small business owner before undertaking dispute resolution studies through Massey University. Helen is an associate member of the Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand (AMINZ) and a Resolution Institute accredited mediator.

If you would like to get in touch with Helen, please contact her by email at fairwayinfo@fairwayresolution.com


1 Taft,L. (2000) Apology subverted: The commodification of apology. The Yale Law Journal, 109(5),1135-1160.

2 Learner,H. (2020) 6 May and 8 May 2020 (Podcast) Available at http://castbox.fm/x/1DN74 (accessed 10 May 2020).

3 Whyte,D. Consolations the solace, nourishment and underlying meaning of everyday words. Great Britain: Canongate, 2019.

4 Learner,H. IDEM.

5 Lazare,A (2004) On Apology. New York: Oxford, 2004.