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Apologies can potentially help resolve legal disputes ranging from injury cases to wrongful firings, according to new research.

Jennifer Robbennolt, professor of law and psychology, University of Illinois, says apologies can give wounded parties a sense of justice and satisfaction that promotes settlements and trims demands for damages.

“Conventional wisdom has been to avoid apologies because they amount to an admission of guilt that can be damaging to defendants in court,” she said.

“But the studies suggest that apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases,” she adds.

Robbennolt surveyed more than 550 people, gauging their reaction to apologies offered during settlement negotiations in a hypothetical injury case.

She says apologies generally reduced financial demands, increasing prospects for an agreement. But the nature of the apology also matters.

Apologies that accept fault have more impact than apologies that merely express sympathy, but take no responsibility.

Robbennolt says apologies that accept blame can be powerful psychologically, giving plaintiffs a sense of closure and accountability that makes them less angry and more willing to forgive.

“The apology fulfils some of the goals that triggered the suit, such as a need for respect, to assign responsibility and to get a sense that what happened won’t happen again,” she says.

“So, receiving an apology can reduce financial aspirations and make it possible for parties to enter into discussions about settlement,” she adds.

For defendants, apologies can reduce legal costs as well as damages because cases may settle more quickly, says Robbennolt, who has studied the legal implications of apologies for a decade.

She says lawyers may view apologies differently because of their third-party view of the dispute or because their training provides a perspective on the legal value of apologies that lay people fail to appreciate, says a University of Illinois release.

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