Interacting with people can sometimes be hard. Every time we communicate, we bring baggage to the conversation based on our past experiences and current circumstances. If your job is to serve people in any capacity, sometimes that means dealing with what happens when things go wrong.

Often, there's a good chance you are dealing with a situation you had nothing to do with. A customer's order arrived late. A product is damaged in shipment. An experience failed to meet someone's expectations. In each of those cases, you might find yourself having to solve a problem you didn't create. 

How you communicate when that happens is everything.

It can be easy to take another person's frustration about a situation personally--as if they were attacking you. Then again, sometimes they actually are attacking you, even when it isn't justified. The natural tendency is to apologize using some form of these six words.

"I'm sorry you feel that way."

Here's the thing--this isn't really an apology at all. First, you can't actually be sorry for the way someone else feels. You can only be sorry for your own behavior and the things within your control. You can't control how someone else feels, so don't apologize for it.

More important, however, is that the sentiment behind those words is something along the lines of "Look, I don't know why you're being irrational about this. This isn't my fault, and I think it's ridiculous that you're upset with me." Even if that's not what you mean, that's almost always the way it sounds to the person you're talking to. 

It's about as effective as slapping them across the face.

No, I'm not recommending that, but it's true. That's because what you're communicating is that the way someone feels about a situation is wrong. Even if you believe that to be true, it isn't exactly the most persuasive way to get someone to change their mind--or their feelings. It's insulting. 

It's also a problem because telling someone you're "sorry they feel that way" avoids responsibility for your role in the situation. If you did something requiring an apology, apologize. "I'm really sorry we weren't able to deliver on our promise." Own whatever it was, and say that you're sorry. Then, do what is needed to fix it.

If you didn't, recognize that in many cases, it very well may still be up to you to offer a solution. It's still your responsibility. When dealing with an upset customer, for example, you may have done everything right. It may not be your fault at all, but it's still your problem.

In that case, don't apologize. Instead, try this: "I can tell you're really frustrated. Let me see what I can do to try and fix this."

This acknowledges the problem and their feelings. It doesn't cast judgment on those feelings, but validates them and lets the person know that you've heard them. That, often, is the most important place to start. Sometimes people just need to know that you care enough to hear their frustration, regardless of whether it's entirely justified.

That response doesn't promise that you'll be able to change the way they feel--that's not your responsibility, after all. What it does is communicate that you're on their side by offering to try and help.

Ultimately, that should be your goal--to get on the same side as the person you're talking to. You might be surprised how much of a difference that can make.