Of all the things we say to each other, this is by far the worst. The problem is, it's also far too common. There are a lot of reasons why that's the case, and we'll get to them in a minute, but first, imagine you're on the phone expressing your frustration to a customer support person that a critical package hasn't been delivered.
"It's unacceptable that this delivery was delayed," you say. "We had to have it today, and this delay is just another example of why we're going to have to look for a more reliable provider."
"I'm sorry you feel that way," the other person responds.
Ouch. In that moment, they might as well have slapped you across the face.
Or, maybe you heard it from a boss after you expressed concern over a policy or how something is done. Or, even worse, maybe you're the boss and the people who work for you have heard it come out of your mouth. If that's the case, it's killing your leadership.
The reason that sentence is a problem should be obvious. You can't be sorry for the way someone else feels. You can't be sorry for their feelings any more than you can be sorry for the clothes they decided to put on that morning.
You can only be sorry for whatever you've done that might have led to someone feeling a certain way. If you haven't done anything, there's nothing to be sorry for.
Usually, however, there's something that you--or the company you represent--either did or failed to do that has led to this frustration. We almost never think there's anything we need to be sorry for, but that's rarely the case entirely.
Especially when the feeling someone is expressing is disappointment, frustration, or anger about an interaction they had with you or your company. I get it: When you're the one answering the phone or fielding the complaint, it can be a lot. You're the one bearing the brunt of the frustration, and the temptation is to dismiss it all as noise. The problem is that it isn't all noise.
When your customers or your team are telling you something, there's a reason. Something went wrong--or, at a minimum, the other person perceives that something went wrong. Don't take it personally, and don't respond out of frustration. Just do what you can to solve it.
When you use those six words, what you're really trying to do is absolve yourself of any kind of responsibility or fault for whatever went wrong. You're dismissing the other person's feelings and circumstances, which is a fast-track to a damaged relationship.
The thing is, even if something isn't your fault, if you're in the business of interacting with people, it's your responsibility. That makes it your problem to solve.
Here's where emotional intelligence (EQ) comes in. At its core, EQ is the ability to understand what triggers your own emotional response to something and choose to respond differently.
When you're across the table from someone experiencing a problem, your goal should always be to seek to understand their situation and separate your own feelings. Even when the person is irritated or upset, your job is to remain professional and not escalate the situation by taking it personally or by dismissing their concerns.
If you or the company you represent has done something to frustrate or upset someone, apologize for that. It's an indictment of our human pride that a genuine "I'm sorry, I was wrong" are the five hardest words to form in our mouth.
In the case of a company you work for, it might sound more like: "I am really sorry that we didn't live up to our promise. I know that is so frustrating. Here's what I'm going to do to try and make it right."
Or, perhaps what the customer needs to hear is: "I am really sorry that this flight is delayed. I know that's going to cause you problems. While I can't get you there any sooner, let me see what I can do to take care of you in the meantime."
By the way, there's one clarification worth mentioning. Sometimes we use the word "sorry" to convey empathy. We might say, "I'm so sorry that happened," even when we had nothing to do with whatever went wrong. That can be a powerful way to communicate with someone.
Only, that's not what "I'm sorry you feel that way" does. It's not demonstrating empathy. In fact, it really demonstrates apathy. It's not an apology for something you are responsible for, and it's not seeking to understand and share the feelings of someone else.
That's the key really. You might even be surprised how far a little empathy goes in making a situation right, even when you can't solve it. You might be surprised what banning that phrase does for your leadership.