Here’s a scenario that happens to almost everyone at some point: You need to have a difficult conversation at work, and it’s not easy to speak up. But you do it anyway.
“I thought that I was going to be part of that meeting, and I felt left out when I didn’t get the invitation.”
Then you get this response: “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Is that a satisfying answer? Of course not. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is a phrase that implies that the person feeling unhappy is somehow at fault for having their feelings at all. It leans on that person to change their feelings, and doesn’t offer any attempt at understanding or connection. Other answers that come off similarly include “I’m sorry,” with no further discussion, and “I feel bad that you feel bad.”
It’s not surprising that a leader might use this line, however. In a dialogue like this, both sides may feel threatened. The one who is speaking out feels vulnerable, and the one who is receiving feedback is likely in defensive, protective mode. It’s hard to get out of that defensiveness. But at this moment, it’s especially important.
Acknowledging feelings is a way of affirming our common humanity. We show that we care about the other person and how they feel. It is also the best way of moving the conversation forward. Without this acknowledgement, you could end up in a stalemate, where the issue—such as being left out of a meeting—becomes a battle of each person trying to convince the other that their position makes more sense. “I wasn’t able to invite you because of x and y.” “But I should have been invited because of z.” No one changes their views without the feeling that they’ve been understood.
Over the long term, a leader who routinely dismisses others’ feelings won’t gain loyalty, and will delay a reckoning. I recommend taking the time now, not later.
So what can you say instead?
Respond with acknowledgement: “Wow, I can see why you might feel that way.” Or, “Hey, I’ve been in your shoes and I know that doesn’t feel great. Let me figure out what happened.”
Respond by opening the door for a conversation: “That’s good information for me to know about. Can you tell me more so that I have a better understanding?”
Respond by considering how you might have co-created the situation: “Gosh, maybe I didn’t check to make sure everyone was alerted to that meeting.” Even in cases where you think 90 percent of the situation is on the other party, look for your piece. Did you really think about everyone who should have been invited to the meeting? Are there other ways you could give this person more acknowledgement? Is there one small part you can own that will help you see their side? Make that effort and it will strengthen your relationship and create goodwill. Can you connect with the vulnerable part of yourself, and remember when you’ve felt left out or misunderstood?
Finally: Listen. Listen hard, and listen carefully. When a person feels heard, they are more open to connection, and to change.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” is really an expression of disengagement. But we don’t want to be disengaged. We want to connect. Connection, true empathy, and a sense of co-creation are how we build great relationships, and great organizations.