Leaders do a lot of speaking. They have vision to share, direction to clarify, and feedback to give. Today I am going to share with you two of the most important words that leaders ever say. These words are not particularly easy to say, but they are absolutely essential. They are:
I’ll illustrate with a story from just the other night. My family and I had had a long day. A good day full of fun, but we were all spent. Towards the end of the day, both our kids decided it would be great to start screaming and crying. That’s what exhausted kids do. Neither my wife nor I had a lot of patience at this point, so our responses to this were less than ideal. The way we interacted with each other was also unhelpful. We each made several short and snappy comments to one another that set us against each other rather than channeling our energies to work together.
Fast forward about an hour, the kids are finally down. My wife comes over and starts telling me how the interaction made her feel. Not in the gentlest of terms. My gut response is anger and frustration. I’m feeling attacked. We’re both tired, upset, and overloaded. And both feeling justified. I’m thinking to myself “I know I wasn’t perfect but all things considered I did a pretty darn good job.” Things are going downhill, and we’re both at a place where we are just fueling the fire. It’s going to be ugly.
Then I asked myself, where do I want this evening to go? What do I as a leader in this family need to do to get there?
I wanted a peaceful evening, and to get my wife and I back on the same team. Which meant saying those two words, “I’m sorry.”
Don’t get me wrong here. I still felt angry and unjustly attacked. I still felt vindicated in my frustration. I also still didn’t think I was as bad as I was being portrayed. But as much as I wanted all of those things addressed, I knew they wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go. I had to swallow my pride, forget myself for a moment, and say I was sorry despite my feelings.
And it worked. That sparked the connection that put us on the same team again, and we had a wonderful evening. Because once I took responsibility for the hurtful things that I said, and took the step of apologizing, there was nothing to fight about. It removed the need to fight about blame, who was worse, or who started it.
It’s not easy to apologize. In fact, I blow it far more often than I get it right. But when you experience the power of an apology even once, it becomes pretty clear that it’s worth the effort.
I’m sorry is both an endpoint and a beginning. It ends conflict, and starts a new movement towards the future. Whether the issue is a missed deadline, poor communication, or a bad decision, I’m sorry allows you to put it in the past and move forward to make it right. It minimizes the damage and helps everyone learn from a situation that could otherwise leave scars for months. There are few things that can change momentum like those two words.
A final note. As powerful as the words “I’m sorry” are, there is one word that renders them useless. That word is “but.” “I’m sorry, but…” is about as useful as a soggy match, and in fact often makes things worse. Leave the “but” behind.
So when things are starting to go south, take a deep breath, swallow your pride, and use those two amazing words.