Apology is a powerful — and often under used — conflict resolution tool. One reason for not apologizing that I often hear in my work with clients is the concern that apologizing either totally admits fault for the conflict or reveals a weakness.
While these concerns may be legitimate in some situations, they are overblown in most cases.
The perception of threat is the primary reason for conflict escalation, and removing this perception is the leverage point for conflict de-escalation. Apology works so well because it makes you less threatening to the other person.
Here are three tips for apologizing in a way that leads to de-escalation…
- Only apologize for your behaviors, words and actions, and never apologize for the other person's feelings or interpretations.
While it can happen, I seldom see situations where a conflict starts and escalates due solely to the actions of one person. So, there is likely some word choice, tone, or action that you contributed to the conflict escalation. When you are willing to take responsibility for your contribution, you tend to reduce the perception the other person has that you are a threat to them.Likewise, when you apologize for the other person's feelings, you subtly imply that you are in control of their emotional state. For many people, when you claim ownership for their feelings you convey a threat signal.
- Maintain appropriate eye contact.
Appropriate eye contact conveys respect and trustworthiness. As a result, good eye contact is a critical component of an effective apology.
- Make sure your tone and body language match your message.
In his often quoted (and misquoted) communication study, Albert Mehrabian found that body language and tone are the majority contributors to the received message in face-to-face communication. For the purpose of this post, the key observation is that when the message conveyed by tone and body language does not match the message sent by your word choice, the listener tends to believe the tone and body language in preference to the words.
With these tips in mind, here are some suggested ways to successfully phrase an apology…
- “I apologize for the tone I used.”
- “I am sorry that I spoke in a way that was offensive to you.”
- “I am sorry that I said/did ______.”
Please add your tips and suggestions in the comments section.