An organization, at its core, is a collection of relationships. That includes relationships between the people who work together, as well as the people they collectively serve. Those relationships depend on a lot of things, but none more than trust and empathy.
The problem, however, is that often we do things that directly poison relationships. Usually, that's because we either lack empathy or we erode trust. This toxic phrase is one of the most damaging examples:
"I'm sorry you feel that way."
I'll get to why it's such a problem, but first, here's how it usually happens: Someone is upset about something that happened. It might be a co-worker who was counting on a piece of a project to be finished in order to do his or her work, but you weren't able to meet their timeline. Or perhaps a customer had a poor experience and is expressing their frustration.
In either case, chances are that you're going to end up in a conversation of some sort, and will be faced with a choice about how to respond. The problem is that when people are frustrated about something that happened, that frustration often comes across in a way that makes us defensive.
Sometimes it even feels like we're under attack. When that happens, we stop thinking about how to address the real issue the other person is facing, and instead start thinking about how to protect our own pride and position.
This phrase is the perfect example of that because, on its surface, it looks like an apology. It looks like a reasonable way to respond to someone who is upset or disappointed or frustrated. It even uses the words "I'm sorry," which are a powerful tool whenever you're trying to repair a relationship.
Except, it's really the absolute worst way to apologize. In fact, it isn't even an apology at all. You can't be sorry for the way someone else feels. You can only apologize for your own behavior. If you caused their frustration, you can be sorry for your actions that contributed to that feeling, but that's not what those words do.
And they don't communicate that you care at all about either the person's feelings or whatever it was that caused them. To the recipient, it feels a lot like a slap across the face.
Imagine your co-worker says to you: "I'm really disappointed in the way you handled that."
"I'm sorry you feel that way," you respond.
Or a customer says: "I can't believe you're telling me that the gift I ordered for my son isn't going to get here before Christmas. This is ridiculous!"
"I'm sorry you feel that way." Are you really, though? And what are the chances it will feel that way to whomever you're talking to?
Those words generally communicate that you believe the other person is unreasonable for feeling how they do, and that it isn't your problem. That, however, is where you're wrong.
There are plenty of times that it may not be your fault, but that's different. You might not be directly responsible for whatever went wrong. You may even think the person is completely unreasonable--that's not the point. If the relationship matters, it may not be your fault but it is your problem.
Meaning, it's your problem to solve. At that moment, you have an opportunity to help someone who is experiencing a difficult situation. If you have the authority or ability to fix something, then you should, even if the way the other person is handling it feels like an attack. That means acknowledging the issue, validating the way the other person feels, and proposing a solution that shows that you value the relationship.
For example, in the case of the customer whose gift won't arrive: "I know how frustrating it is that your package is running late, especially during the holidays. I am so sorry that we might not get it there in time. While I can't promise I can get it delivered by then, I am going to reach out to our distribution team to see if there's something we can do."
One of the most powerful things about this isn't that it immediately solves the problem or eliminates the frustration, but it demonstrates that you are on the same side as the other person. Even more, when you respond with patience and empathy, you show them that you value the relationship and that their concern matters to you. Even if you can't fix the immediate issue, a genuine apology goes a long way toward fixing what really matters--the relationship.