To disarm anger, try empathy instead of apology
If you think back to the last time you felt hurt or wronged, confronted the person in question, and received an “I’m sorry” in response, how satisfied did you feel? Assuming the person was sincere and did not try to explain or justify the behavior, did you consider the apology sufficient to make up for the offense? Most likely it did not, because anyone can wrong another person and say “I’m sorry” without having any real understanding of how their actions were hurtful, why they mattered, or how others felt about them.
The act of apologizing does not actually convey understanding or empathy. So why bother?
In the classic movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, one of the most memorable scenes involves Pee Wee trying to inspire a waitress to follow her dream of moving to Paris, which goes comically awry.
Pee Wee: Simone, this is your dream. You have to follow it.
Simone: I know you’re right, but…
Pee Wee: But what? Everyone I know has a big “but.” C’mon, Simone, let’s talk about your big “but.”
(Simone’s boyfriend overhears this conversation, and subsequently chases Pee Wee in a murderous rage).
Despite falling a hair short of cinematic brilliance, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure stumbled onto something profound: the word “but” is a curse that hurts communication and undermines relationships.
A reporter recently contacted me for a quote about things never to say at work. She expected me to say something like, “You look sexy in that suit” or “The boss’ husband is a beefcake,” but I offered two less obvious examples:
But Jason, you’re thinking, we use these all the time. They are indelibly etched into our speech habits. What harm can they cause, and how could we ever hope to remove them from our vocabulary? You’re right. These are common expressions most everyone uses without a second thought—which means you are immune from judgment for past utterances. Going forward, however, if you say either of these, you will do so with full knowledge of their negative impact.