Apology is a powerful — and often underused — conflict resolution tool. One reason for not apologizing that I often hear in my work with clients is the concern that apologizing either totally admits fault for the conflict or reveals a weakness.
While those concerns may be legitimate in some situations, they are overblown in most cases.
Conflicts usually escalate because one party feels threatened in some way. Addressing those feelings is critical to de-escalation, and an apology works so well because it makes you less threatening to the other person.
Here are three tips for apologizing in a way that leads to de-escalation:
Apologize for your behavior or words, not for the person’s feelings or interpretation
While it can happen, I seldom see situations where a conflict starts and escalates because of the actions of one person. It is likely you contributed in some way through your word choice, tone or actions. Additionally, when you apologize for the other person’s feelings (i.e., “I am sorry I made you feel that way,” you subtly imply that you are in control of their emotional state. For many people, when you claim ownership for their feelings, you convey a threat signal.
Instead, take responsibility for your contribution and you are more likely to reduce the perception the other person has that you are a threat.
Maintain appropriate eye contact
Match your tone and body language to your message
With these tips in mind, here are some suggested ways to successfully phrase an apology.
- “I apologize for the tone I used.”
- “I am sorry that I spoke in a way that was offensive to you.”
- “I am sorry that I said/did ______.”
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