Compassion is one of the true hallmarks of being human. Empathy with the human condition is one step towards gaining a competitive advantage for social cultures. Empathy leads to a desire to want to understand the underlying causes of grief and anguish and in so doing we learn how to avoid, where possible, such circumstances in the future.

Our present society however has turned the term “I’m sorry” into an admission of guilt for which a person needs to be punished. If anything the expression which at one time spurred social structures to be able to device new and innovative ways to overcome adversary has now turned the phrase into an automated defensive mechanism where learning cannot be engaged. Instead, social structures are now developing around the phrase in order to deflect and avoid opportunities for learning and growth irrespective of guilt or innocence.

In point of fact the inability of professionals and corporate executives to be able to say the words “I’m Sorry” without having to worry about whether those words carry an admission of guilt increases the degree of stress, anxiety, and delays the grieving process for those people who need to hear those words in order to move on with their lives. The simple fact that people are prevented from empathizing with the plight of others brings with it a hostility that is both unnatural and unhealthy for all concerned.

The other challenge with the phrase is that in some cases, no matter what our level of guilt is, nor our level of empathy, the phrase “I’m sorry” is so hollow as to be meaningless in certain situations. For example, the drunk driver that is truly sorry about hitting and possibly killing a child. Very few people even in their wildest dreams are that depraved that they wouldn’t reel in horror at the concept. And yet this scenario does happen each year.

This is not an issue with a person’s ability, even a guilty person, to empathize with a terrible situation. Rather it is an inability of those people to get over the emotional shock of having become a victim whether real or perceived. Some people never get over this shock to their systems while others recover in due time.

The BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one of those situations where the words “I’m sorry” are so desperately needed to be said by those people in leadership positions, are so unwilling to be heard by those people who are now victims of its impacts, and yet so impossible to say. If we can’t say and hear those two words above everything else – how possibly can we grow from this situation and move forward in ensuring that such problems are less likely to happen in the future.

It is so important that as a culture we have the ability to empathize, forgive, and learn from our past mistakes. And yet my fear right now is that we won’t be able to do this anytime soon. They are the first two words that open the door to a larger discussion on what went wrong and how to prevent things like this from happening in the future. It seems however that it may be years – if ever – before we will be able to get there.

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