Have you ever wanted someone to apologize to you, but you don’t know how to extract the words “I’m sorry” out of their mouth?
I understand your desire. I hear it often in my work as an executive coach.
For example, Nancy was furious at her co-worker, Don. During one of our coaching sessions, she asked for my help in dealing with her strong emotions and setting things straight.
“He makes me so angry! I was in a big meeting with my boss and my peers. I couldn’t believe Don talked about one of my key ideas for a new PR strategy. He positioned it as though it was his idea, even though I’d shared it with him three times over the last month. I hate it when he steals my thunder!”
Nancy practically had steam coming out of her ears as she growled, “I’m going to demand that Don apologizes to me! He at least owes me that!”
If you’ve ever gotten angry at someone for something they did that upset you — you may have felt that the other person should come to you and apologize.
But then you waited. And waited.
No apology. For hours, days, weeks, or longer.
You may have hinted at the need for an apology. Perhaps you gave the other person the silent treatment. Or you sulked, wishing the person would notice you looking upset and would initiate a discussion with you. Or maybe you said something geared to get attention like, “I think you know what I want.”
If you’re really upset, you might have demanded, “You owe me an apology!”
Usually, these approaches backfire.
So how do you get someone to apologize?
You change your desired outcome.
The other person may not feel compelled to apologize. He or she may see the situation very differently than you, and see no need to apologize. For some people, apologizing means admitting guilt, so they won’t utter words like “I’m sorry.” Still other people feel too much shame for what’s transpired, and cannot readily confront their emotions, let alone address yours.
So, instead of an apology, you can ask for either one (or both) of these:
- Some degree of acknowledgement of what happened
- A discussion of how you’ll handle a similar situation in the future
Acknowledging the situation
To increase your chances of getting someone to acknowledge what happened (like, “you interrupted me mid-sentence,” or “I didn’t get invited to the lunch with the rest of the group”) you can say “I’d really like to talk about what happened.”
For example, Nancy said to Don, “In the meeting last week, you brought up an idea that I’d shared with you. To my ear, when you brought it up, it sounded like you originated the idea. I felt angry. So I’d really like to talk about what happened.”
Then, Nancy asked Don, “How did the meeting transpire for you? I’d like to hear about how you came to the point of discussing the PR idea.”
Listen, as best you can, without interruption.
Then, you can give your side of the story.
And then, as neutrally as possible, show where you have differences in how you see the situation. You may not come to resolution, or even an apology. But at least you have a chance of seeing how another person views the same event. Which might be very differently. And that can give you greater empathy or insight into the person.
In this approach, you’re opening up the topic and you’re giving the person some latitude and leeway. And the other person may choose to say nothing. But that person might reply with something like this, “I know. I get it. That sucks to feel that way.”
The words “I’m sorry” may or may not be included. But at least you get to share your perspective of the event. It’s best to do that in a fact-based manner. So avoid adding in your interpretations, and if you do feel the need to share them, add a preface like, “to my ear,” or “as I saw it,” to acknowledge that this is how you’re making meaning of the situation.
Discuss how you’ll handle similar situations in the future
You can also bring up the situation and make a request for how you’d like to address similar situations in the future.
For example, Nancy might say to Don, “I have a request. Yesterday, in the meeting with our boss, you described an idea that I’ve shared with you at least three times this month. And you said, “I have this great idea.” I was surprised you didn’t give me any credit. So, I have a request. In the future, if you want to share an idea that we’ve discussed together, I’d like you to acknowledge it, with something like, “Nancy and I discussed this last week.” It matters to me to get credit. Would be willing to do that, Don?”
In this case, you tell the other person that you have a request. You describe the situation as neutrally as possible, then you make the request, and you ask if the person would be willing to accept the request. If not, then you can have a discussion about what that person would be wiling to do. If there’s real conflict, and you two clash, listen for the areas where the person sees differently than you. You may want to have a series of conversations, rather than one, to work through your differences.
So, when you feel wronged or slighted in the future, remember: Instead of asking for an apology, you can ask for acknowledgement of the situation, or discuss how you’ll handle similar situations in the future. Or both!
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