"I'm sorry, I just can't stop crying," Rick*, a manager in sales at a Fortune 100 company said to me — and then to Jim, a Senior VP at that company and also Rick's boss.
Jim looked at me, not knowing what to do next.
I had been called in to see about mending a rift between the two. While it had been building for some time, it had reached a climax when Jim had yelled at Rick in a team meeting, "I don't even know why I bother with you! You are an utterly useless human being!"
Rick was shaken and abruptly got up to leave the room — whereupon Jim yelled out to him, "Useless and a coward to boot!"
The rest of the team was speechless. Many of them looked down or away, while others stared like deer in the headlights.
I first sat down with each of them separately to hear their side of the story. Jim revealed that he was being pressured by his boss to substantially increase his numbers and that he felt he needed to wake up his team. His stress levels already high, Rick had unwittingly triggered him in that meeting by not responding and appearing confused at a question Jim had asked him.
Rick told me that Jim was a bully who seemed to have it in for him, and that whenever Jim spoke to him with an abusive tone, it triggered such stress that his mind would go blank.
After meeting with each of them alone, I met with both of them and applied a strategy I had developed decades ago to help divorced couples. The crux is this: you can't be sincerely empathic towards and angry at someone at the same moment. In other words, you can't walk in someone else's shoes and step on their toes at the same time.
I asked Jim, "If I were to ask Rick, what caused him to get up and leave the room when you berated him in front of your team, what would he say?"
Jim was a little confused about the question. I tried again. "Put yourself in Rick's shoes at the moment he left that meeting — tell me what you think he was feeling."
With some contrition and embarrassment, he replied, "I think he felt beaten up by the schoolyard bully" — he gulped — "And that bully was me." Rick was obviously moved and even became a little emotional at Jim's admission.
I then asked Rick, "If I were to ask Jim what was going on with him at the moment he yelled at you, what would he say?"
Rick replied, "I think he would say he's under huge pressure to get our numbers up and it's stressing him out." Jim actually became calmer and more conciliatory in his posture towards Rick. We continued like this for some minutes until the two actually seemed to be syncing up with each other.
I finally applied something I call the Fishbowl Technique, where I had Rick and Jim look into each other's eyes and focus only on each other's eyes. I asked Jim to say to Rick, "I'm sorry about bullying and humiliating you in that meeting, and all the other times I have done it to you. I was wrong."
It was at that point that Rick became overwhelmed with emotion and started to cry and couldn't regain his composure. This time it was Jim who was like a deer in the headlights and finally had to look away.
When the raw emotion had run its course, I asked Rick, "What was that all about?"
He looked at me with bloodshot eyes, but appearing ten pounds emotionally lighter. "I have never been apologized to in my entire life, much less had someone tell me that they were wrong for doing something hurtful to me."
That knocked both Jim and me over.
Is there someone you need to apologize to? If there is, don't just say you're sorry; give them a Power Apology (which I explain in detail in my book, Just Listen). It has three parts:
1. Admit that you were wrong and that you're sorry. Really own up to what you did — or failed to do. For example, "I jumped down your throat and berated you mercilessly when you didn't get that report done on time. I was wrong to treat you that way and I am sorry." Sadly, most labor attorneys will advise you not to say you're wrong to anyone, because that might lead them to have something they can use to sue you. If that is the case, you may just need to stop at saying you're sorry. (And while in matters of the business and legal world, perhaps you shouldn't admit you were wrong, in matters of the heart with the people you love, always say it. It's that one thing they need to begin to forgive you.)
2. Show them you understand the effect it had on them. For instance, "And when I did that, and wouldn't let it go, I think I made you feel cornered and probably anxious — and maybe even panicky." You don't need to jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what they must be feeling or thinking; just try to really put yourself in their shoes.
3. Tell them what you are going to do differently in the future so that it doesn't happen again. For example, "Going forward, when I'm upset about something you have done or failed to do, I'm going to pause and ask myself, 'What is the outcome I want from speaking to you? In all likelihood it will be for you to just fix what needs to be fixed so you can get the results that both of us want. I will calmly speak to and maybe even with you instead of at or over you." This reassures them that you will truly try to change your behavior in the future — not just keep apologizing after every blow-up — and hopefully ends the conversation on a more positive note.
Finally, never assume that part of the apology can be left unsaid. To really repair a rift, even then unsaid needs to be spoken out loud.
*Names and some details have been changed.
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