The following is an excerpt from my book, The Joy of Conflict Resolution. I decided to include this topic because I had seen so many situations in which “I’m sorry” simply fanned the flames instead of defusing a confrontation.
Genuine apologies have their place in conflict resolution, but have been so overused that their effectiveness is limited. “I’m sorry,” for example, seems to be an automatic reaction to another’s anger or frustration. Some people say “I’m sorry” when someone else bumps into them. Other times, an apology is offered before someone has even finished their story. However, it is often interpreted as “don’t be mad any more, I said I’m sorry.” When we feel wronged and have a story to tell, we have little patience with someone implying we shouldn’t be mad any more. People may become even angrier by an immediate apology and respond with something like “If you were sorry, you wouldn’t have done that in the first place.”
It also may be that you have nothing to apologize for–you did nothing wrong. Their anger may be misdirected or based on inaccurate or incomplete information. In those cases, the other person may see your apology as a sign of weakness and expect unconditional surrender, making them even more difficult to deal with.
When we think about it, “I’m sorry” speaks more to our intention than to the impact on the other person. It diverts the spotlight from their story to ours and is often followed by “but I only meant . . .” If you have made a mistake, you may find it more effective to say “You’re right. You should have been included in that decision” than “I’m sorry you weren’t included.” In short, what follows “I’m sorry” is much more important than the words themselves.
With an apology or any of these tools, being genuine is more important than being accurate. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” A lack of sincerity reduces these powerful tools to manipulation, more likely to trigger another person’s anger than to defuse it.