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The Dos and Don’ts of Apologizing During a Conflict

How to use effective communication to maintain peace after a workplace conflict occurs.

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An apology goes a long way in deescalating and/or resolving conflict. However, for it to be effective, it has to be done under the right circumstances and in the right way. Consider the following dos and don’ts on how to apologize during a conflict.

DO: acknowledge and apologize for your behavior. In other words, when you apologize, you are agreeing that your actions took place. (For example, “Steven, you’re right, I did yell at you in front of everyone. I am sorry for doing that.”

DON’T: agree with the other person’s interpretation of what your action implied about your private thoughts or feelings- unless their interpretation is correct.

DO: apologize as soon as you realize you ought to.

DON’T: wait to apologize or hope it will simply go away, because conflict tends to fester if not attended to in a timely manner. It may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many conflicts have persisted because someone couldn’t work up the courage to apologize.

DO: admit it to someone when they’re right or you’re wrong. If you realize you messed up or that the other person is right, telling them as much really helps lower defenses. (For example, “Steven, you’re absolutely right. I was wrong to have done that. I apologize.”)

DON’T: use an apology as a manipulation tactic. It has to be authentic.

DO: make your apology about you, not them.

DON’T: apologize for their feelings or interpretation, such as by saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you think that.” Apologizing for someone else’s emotions dismisses their feelings and does not acknowledge your behavior. It’s sort of like saying, “What I did was fine. What you’re feeling is not fine, so I feel sorry for you that you feel that way. Too bad.” This will only make the situation worse.

[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

APOLOGY SEQUENCE:

Try to keep this sequence in mind next time you have to apologize during a conflict. You might even attempt to write it out first.

  1. Listen calmly. Depending on the situation, the listening can be either reflective or passive.
  2. Acknowledge and apologize for the behavior.
  3. Acknowledge the effects your behavior had on the other person and/or the situation.
  4. If you made a mistake, admit what you should have done.
  5. Acknowledge why you did it the way you did and take responsibility. It’s not their fault. (If you haven’t made a mistake but realize your behavior has caused pain or strife, you can apologize here rather than step 2.)
  6. Make a plan to correct the behavior going forward. You can also ask for their suggestions to adjust the offending behavior, particularly if you aren’t sure what you’re doing wrong.

This is modified excerpt from Conflict Resolution Playbook: Practical Communication Skills for Preventing, Managing, and Resolving Conflict by Jeremy Pollack.

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