Apology is a highly under used approach in resolving conflicts. Many people avoid apologizing because they see it as a sign of weakness or as giving in to the demands of the other person.
In a role-play exercise I participated in recently, I was reminded of the amazing power of honest , sincere apologies. In the class scenario, I had to initiate a conflict resolution discussion with another class participant. I began by apologizing for the situation without admitting wrongdoing. Despite his best effort to go on the offensive and test my conversational skills, he said that the apology triggered an emotional response that he could not force himself to overcome. He said that he felt compelled to back down from a confrontation.
This scenario happened in a classroom environment, and it happened without any real emotional involvement. Still, it highlights what Dan Dana (author of Conflict Resolution and Managing Differences) calls the inhibitory reflex – the natural emotional response most of us have when someone offers us any kind of concession.
Far from weakness, a humble, well-phrased, and well-intended apology wields great power. It can shift a heated debate from a “wrestler's circling the ring” situation to a civil discussion of honest differences of opinion. The next time you find yourself in a conflict situation, try it out. Offer an apology and watch the other person soften before your eyes.