I was running late. My wife Eleanor and I had agreed to meet at the restaurant at seven o’clock and it was already half past. I had a good excuse in the form of a client meeting that ran over and I wasted no time getting to the dinner as fast as possible.
When I arrived at the restaurant, I apologized and told her I didn’t mean to be late.
She answered: “You never mean to be late.” Uh oh, she was mad.
“Sorry,” I retorted, “but it was unavoidable.” I told her about the client meeting. Not only did my explanations not soothe her, they seemed to make things worse. That started to make me angry.
That dinner didn’t turn out to be our best.
Several weeks later, when I was describing the situation to a friend of mine, Ken Hardy, a professor of family therapy, he smiled.
“You made a classic mistake,” he told me.
“Me? I made the mistake?” I was only half joking.
“Yes. And you just made it again,” he said. “You’re stuck in your perspective: You didn’t mean to be late. But that’s not the point. The point is that you were late. The point — and what’s important in your communication — is how your lateness impacted Eleanor.”
In other words, I was focused on my intention while Eleanor was focused on the consequences. We were having two different conversations. In the end, we both felt unacknowledged, misunderstood, and angry.
The more I thought about what Ken said, the more I recognized that this battle — intention vs. consequences — was the root cause of so much interpersonal discord.
As it turns out, it’s not the thought that counts or even the action that counts. That’s because the other person doesn’t experience your thought or your action. They experience the consequences of your action.
Here’s another example: You send an email to a colleague telling him you think he could have spoken up more in a meeting.
He replies to the email, “Maybe if you spoke less, I would have had an opportunity to say something!”
That obviously rankles you. Still, you send off another email trying to clarify the first email: “I didn’t mean to offend you, I was trying to help.” And then maybe you add some dismay at the aggressiveness of his response.
But that doesn’t make things better. He quotes the language of your first email back to you. “Don’t you see how it reads?” He asks. “BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!” You write back, IN CAPS.
So how do you get out of this downward spiral?
It’s stunningly simple, actually. When you’ve done something that upsets someone — no matter who’s right — always start the conversation by acknowledging how your actions impacted the other person. Save the discussion about your intentions for later. Much later. Maybe never. Because, in the end, your intentions don’t matter much.
What if you don’t think the other person is right — or justified — in feeling the way they do? It doesn’t matter. Because you’re not striving for agreement. You’re going for understanding.
What should I have said to Eleanor?
“I see you’re angry. You’ve been sitting here for 30 minutes and that’s got to be frustrating. And it’s not the first time. Also, I can see how it seems like I think being with a client gives me permission to be late. I’m sorry you had to sit here waiting for so long.”
All of that is true. Your job is to acknowledge their reality — which is critical to maintaining the relationship. As Ken described it to me: “If someone’s reality, as they see it, is negated, what motivation do they have to stay in the relationship?”
In the email back and forth I described earlier, instead of clarifying what you meant, consider writing something like: “I could see how my criticizing your performance — especially via email — feels obnoxious to you. How it sounds critical and maybe dismissive of your efforts in the meeting.”
I said this was simple but I didn’t say it was easy.
The hardest part is our emotional resistance. We’re so focused on our own challenges that it’s often hard to acknowledge the challenges of others. Especially if we are their challenge and they are ours. Especially when they lash out at us in anger. Especially when we feel misunderstood. In that moment, when we empathize with them and their criticism of our behavior, it almost feels like we’re betraying ourselves.
But we’re not. We’re just empathizing.
Here’s a trick to make it easier. While they’re getting angry at you, imagine, instead, that they’re angry at someone else. Then react as you would in that situation. Probably you’d listen and let them know you see how angry they are.
And if you never get to explain your intentions? What I have found in practice — and this surprised me — is that once I’ve expressed my understanding of the consequences, my need to justify my intentions dissipates.
That’s because the reason I’m explaining my intentions in the first place is to repair the relationship. But I’ve already accomplished that by empathizing with their experience. At that point, we’re both usually ready to move on.
And if you do still feel the need? You’ll still have the opportunity, once the other person feels seen, heard, and understood.
If we succeed in doing all this well, we’ll often find that, along with our relationships, something else gets better: our behavior.
After that last conversation with Eleanor — after really understanding the consequences of my lateness on her — somehow, someway, I’ve managed to be on time a lot more frequently.
Originally published at the Harvard Business Review.
This is a great article. I am amazed at the simplicity of the solution for a potentially dead lock situation. As you rightly said, it is simple, but not easy. You need a lot of maturity and lot of introspection to do this the right way. Definitely worth trying.
This is an extremely helpful post. Not only do you identify a commmon problem which we all experience at work or in our personal lives but you also give us tools to fix the problem.
You identify the issue, explain why it’s an issue, tell us what we should do about it and give specific examples on how to handle it.
Nicely done and well worth my time to read. I’ll be passing this post along to my co-workers and friends.
Thank you for this.
Peter, I always enjoy your articles but this one is special. The only suggestion I would add to your email recommendation is something I too often fail to do…simply pick up the phone and talk to them. Thanks for all the sage advice through the years and your amazing ability to put it into words that are simple, relevant and compelling.
I agree with you. I should have added that.
So very true. It’s hard to take the leap of putting the other’s perspective (or the end-goal of relationship) ahead of making my own (next) point. This article, however, is very helpful in reminding us all of the importance of really listening!
This is very helpful article, also easy to apply. I believe , this would be great to give a try at work .
As always, right on the mark of what I needed to hear. Wish I’d heard it about 3 weeks ago because I could have avoided a huge cliff with a couple of new hires!
great post, Peter. Thank you. One of the things that feedback about performance frequently leaves out is the impact of our behavior. It’s one thing to be self-aware of our behavior, but another thing entirely to have an awareness of how our behavior impacts others.
Thanks for illustrating this so nicely!
Wish there was a like button.
I don’t want to comment as I always expect brilliance in your articles and you always deliver accordingly. Its pointless me commenting under every article as I love them all. A like button would summarize my satisfaction.
Excelente mensaje! Las justificaciones están a un nivel racional, pero cuando alguien está enojado hay que conectar primero con las emociones para de ser necesario, las justificaciones sean escuchadas; antes no.
As a professional in IT for a global firm, I am constantly on the receiving end of frustrated users. They have jobs to get done and when technology doesn’t cooperate, well, they have to take it out on someone.
Myself and my team work hard on the concept of: acknowledgment. That is key. Leave the ego out of the equation. Address the frustration. Address the understanding. Address the situation. Work toward a resolution.
I like how you align this idea of acknowledgment with some straightforward suggestions.
Great article Peter….not only for business but personal relationships also. It reminds me of a book I recently read called “Real Influence”.
Perfect, thanks. Now can we talk about why we seem to always run late?
One of your best ever, Peter. I remain a loyal fan.
I’ve actually sent this off to my kids, who are just now starting out in their post-college careers. Hopefully they’ll put this strategy into practice as anger situations arise (as they no doubt will), hence setting a great example for others to follow.
I hate it when someone is angry with me.
Career wise I had just mastered the art of timing.
Knowing when to keep my mouth shut. Then knowing when to speak up. Usually in meetings -where upper management would be in a why this happened and what are you going to do about it? these meeting were usually safety meetings where I had to fill in for my Boss.
Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to use that skill for long before I had to quit. When I do tell someone something that has to be done or is the right way and they get angry. I feel the need to be acknowledged. To have them agree and apologize. But then there are those that make me feel worse. The ones that are wrong don’t care if you forgive them. I care what they think if they forgive me or if they care about the way I feel about them. I don’t like to leave things open.
The term I usually hear is why do you care what they think? You were
right. Let them stay mad. I still don’t like it.
I love the article. I just hope I can adapt to the way I should feel. Although mine will be more on a more personal level now that I don’t work.
Except when I think I and others have been done wrong. I can get down right nasty with my e-mail. I wrote one Free. Made me feel better but no one else paid much attention.
Like the other reponders, I found this good. Thank you Peter
Once again YOUR conclusions nicely match the consequences of logical thinking, Peter.
(No wonder she gets mad)
Really nice article. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Maybe you could write a follow up article on how to avoid being late. Being late is not only an insult, but it can create an uncorrectable situation. Prime example, “missing the boat”. It’s gone.
Thank you so much Peter for your wonderful article. Simple down to earth easily applicable techniques.
1. In the email story, I think it was a mistake to use email as the communications medium. And then you made a second mistake because as soon as you figured out you had offended the other person, you should have immediately escaped from email and walked down the hall or picked up the phone and had a conversation. Email is a horrible medium for any conversation that is even slightly sensitive.
2. Yes you possibly could have handled things better with your wife, and yes I’m sure this wasn’t the first time you were late because of a client, but I think your wife should have cut some slack — a lot of slack. She should have recognized that “clients” are not just this bizarre obsession that screws up your life but are instead a huge source of the money that paid for the dinner, the house, the car, the college educations, and your middle class lifestyle. Did she have any appreciation of that?
Hi Joshua – I agree with you on #1 – it would have been better to call or walk over if possible.
In terms of #2, in the moment, I felt precisely as you suggest. But what I came to realize is that all those things I do are not an excuse for being constantly late. And trust me when I tell you that Eleanor does, truly, appreciate those things that I do and tells me all the time. Still, it’s very easy for the breadwinner in a house to use that fact as an excuse for all sorts of things – and that’s when, in my experience, the relationship begins to suffer. Yes, it’s true I offer a lot to the family. And yes, it’s also true that it’s not right for me to be late and keep her waiting. Both exist at the same time and I have no problem at all apologizing and being held accountable for my lateness.
That was a brilliant reply Peter Sir.
1) Joshua, on the point No : 1 Joshua people usually don’t initiate the next step for improvement. When your wife is in the kitchen shouting, how many of us have the courage to get up, make her sit and talk with calmness? We do the same old thing: Shout back from where we are.
2) On the point 2, which Peter sir has already replied. There comes a point in life when the significance of money, cars and the so called things wash of, and this time period is different for different people. So, it doesn’t bother much if you own the worlds costliest car (hard earned), if you are late, then that means you are late. No more thoughts.
I agree with this. It would be really effective if we follow this.
I am sure your article would be very useful for my husband and hence i have forwarded this to him immediately after i finished reading it. Well, I will also try to follow this, seems simple! :)
This is so true. I once had someone email an “apology” to me, telling me he was sorry that I hadn’t allowed him to finish what he wanted to say. (This, when I told him I was so angry I thought my head might explode and I couldn’t continue the conversation until I had calmed down.) Needless to say, it added fuel to the flames.
I’m sure he believed that if I listened to his reasoning, I’d agree it made sense. But I wanted an acknowledgement that he had let me down.
Thank you for the great article, “If someone’s reality, as they see it, is negated, what motivation do they have to stay in the relationship”
These lines are superb and it emphasizes importance of honest attempt in expression!!
Thanks for explaining this in such a simple manner. What you have just done is what is done in a session based on EQ. You identified the feelings being experienced by yourself , the next person and stated the same. Humans have a great need to be understood, and that is exactly what happens when one gives a name to the feeling experienced. ” I can see that you are really frustrated about…”
But all this is possible only when one develops Emotional Literacy!
Thanks for a really relevant post!!
While I agree, I am curious as to why this isn’t more natural to do. Shouldn’t it be more natural and more “human nature” to build relationships. Why don’t we automatically do this, rather than having to learn it and make a conscience effort? I’m guessing it’s a pretty small population of people that a) know to do this, and b) are any good at implementing it.
Beautiful post Peter. And timely, because I was able to use it with my wife this morning after I said something boneheaded as usual!
This is really excellent clarity!
What motivates is important too. To actually emotionally care about our impact and not just skillfully manage our impact.
I love the clarity in your writing. Easy to read and understand. Powerful stuff!
More than a solution, this is truth. When you accept it and understand it, thins won’t go wrong much.
Peter, Thank you for one more wonderful article.
Well said. I might quibble with your response to a poster about breadwinner as it implies a status that consistently under-recognizes the bureaucracy, client meetings (children?), managing appointments etc that come with managing a home. I don’t have a family but I imagine there would be seething rage if the person who earned more money was permitted excuses to be late. That said, I am horrifyingly consistently about 7-15 minutes late, which always paves my good intentions with a noxious and obnoxious case of hell. In any case, your points are well-made. The step further is to also consider your perceived rank and how others perceive your rank. I am often misperceiving both based on societal constructs of privilege and power and not interpersonal moment to moment relationships and perceptions.
Thanks for that reminder, Winter. Eleanor does a tremendous amount related to our family which is at least as important and at least as time consuming as what I do. And, on top of that, she has a job in the outside world as well. Thanks for bringing that point up Winter.
I’m not sure if you’ve read “5 languages of apology” by Gary Chapman but it’s also an excellent read on apolgizing “in the others shoes” like you have mentioned here. Thanks for the helpful articles
Very simple (though not easy) analysis and solution to most common problem.
Implementation of this acknowledgement of consequence does need defeating our “big fat ego”. But your tip to imagine it happening with someone else could be helpful, only if we can remember to imagine by pusihing the ego aside.
But article was nicely put and I definitely liked it.
Hi Peter –
I believe that authentic men only offer apologies that are truly heartfelt and in an honest, intimate relationship one doesn’t play the game of giving an inauthentic apology to try and save someone from their difficult feelings. I believe that she got even more angry because she knew that you didn’t really mean your apology. You were being dishonest.
I feel that it is a fool’s errand to focus on the “consequences of your action” and to attempt to manage another’s feelings at the expense of being authentic. Apologies are deserved when you don’t live up to your own expectations of yourself, your own actions, not when someone else feels hurt. Are you going to apologize every time that another person in relationship with you has angry feelings? When it is not your fault? When someone is triggered into deep feelings, it usually isn’t your fault. I could imagine a similar situation where the woman waiting patiently caught up on email, etc. and was not tirggered into anger at all. The reason that she was angry was due to the fact that your actions triggered some of her wounds from earlier in her life (perhaps feelings of abandonment?). I doubt that you intended to make her angry on purpose. This post would have been better titled as “What to Do When Someone Is Angry Based on Your Actions”.
Absolutely the best thing in this situation was to simply listen to her anger, be curious about it and empathize with her feelings and only offer a sincere apology if you did not meet your own expectations of yourself. That is caring, honest, authentic, integrated and loving…
For the record, I would have called or texted that I was going to be late and offer an apology before even arriving because I strive to be “on time” and I carry an expectation of myself that because I would want to know when someone else would be late, so I will do the same for another.
Whether it is intention v. consequences or perception v. reality we must continue to put ourselves in others shoes in order to see the big picture. I have been in similar situations and many times wished I had simply taken my lumps without making excuses.
Thank you for this and so many other insightful articles that are timely and on point.
Great article !! really useful in life. Thanks !
Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts.
In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you
write again soon!