The Power of an Apology

(The following story was relayed by Phil Levine, a former vice president of the American Arbitration Association of New Jersey who now teaches business law.)

Most folks concentrate on the economic aspect of a dispute and believe a mediation will basically "split the baby" with each side compromising on the amount. But there is also a vital human element that should never be forgotten -- as seen in the situation below:

An elderly woman lived alone in an old house by an empty lot that a development company had purchased and was now planning to convert into a parking facility. The process involved major blasting and heavy machinery, and the woman felt her house was being damaged as it shook from the construction activity.

Finally, she decided to sue -- on her own without an attorney. The legal fight dragged on for three years until finally, just before trial, the court insisted on mediation. The developer was represented by a senior vice president and three attorneys, and the woman came all by herself.

The mediator then asked each side to make an opening statement, starting with the elderly woman. She stood up and explained that every time there was blasting and use of heavy equipment, it shook the house, including the basement stone walls. Those walls, she said, had been built by her son who had some years ago passed away. She viewed the basement and its walls as a memorial to her departed son, and the development work was destroying that memorial. She then sat down.

The senior vice president stood and, after first glaring at his three attorneys, faced the woman and said this was the first time in three years he had heard the underlying reason for her lawsuit. He looked at her and, on behalf of himself and his company, apologized. He then sat down.

The mediator then asked the woman if she had further comments to make, and she said no. In fact, she had no further interest in pursuing the lawsuit. All she ever wanted, she said, was someone to acknowledge that the developer was damaging the memories of her son -- and the apology offered by the senior vice president had now achieved this result.

And so the lawsuit came to an end. After three long years, the two sides together were able to resolve it by addressing the very real human element that underlay everything else in the dispute.

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