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When sorry seems to be the hardest word

"And it's getting more and more absurd


It's sad, so sad (so sad)


Why can't we talk it over?


Oh it seems to meThat sorry seems to be the hardest word"


(Elton John)


I was watching Suits last night. Harvey and Jessica have been at full on war with each other. Power games, put downs and downright aggressive with each other. Then Jessica makes a step change, she offers the hand of peace over a drink (okay the bottle of whisky, the gesture was understood). The way they've been behaving with each other is quickly aired. Then they move into the relationship bridge. No complicated explanations. No excuses or justifications for their actions. No counter blame. They own their part. Simply they say (to each other) - Sorry. From Harvey; 'Sorry for what I've been doing (or something like that). From Jessica 'Sorry for my role in that'. Then with that out of the way they get down to a good discussion, purposeful, respectful and calm.


This saying 'Sorry' got me thinking. For some years I worked in the Employment Tribunals system in the UK. My role as a lay member on a Tribunal panel was to hear employment cases; where an employee is unhappy, disgruntled, aggrieved at something they believe the employer has done to them. From a lot of the cases I heard there was a common underlying theme, a failure to say 'Sorry'. What would start as a minor issue, for example the employer/boss says or does something that upsets the employee, then escalates in a major dispute or relationship fallout. Both parties dig in their heels, hold their position and don't acknowledge the other person's viewpoint. Pride, ego and emotion get in the way of intellect. It becomes a 'win' battle that may end up in the ERA , costs thousands of dollars and causes significant psychological impact.


All over a failure to acknowledge the other person and being open enough to saying 'Sorry'.


When we listen, truly listen and acknowledge the other persons viewpoint and feelings. When we acknowledge our part in the issue. When we say 'Sorry', with sincerity, a magical thing occurs. The past hurt falls back and the beginnings of a strengthened relationship occurs. I said with sincerity. People see straight through an insincere apology and the relationship becomes more fractured.


Susan and Peter Glaser (Glaser & Associates, Inc.), communication experts, put it more simply. When you have that conversation, three things happen. A Problem is solved, a Relationship is strengthened and Trust is deepened. In practice we shy away from having those conversations because we fear how the other person will respond or we don't want to be the bad guy. In reality having a well prepared conversation will do the opposite. Their research shows that having those conversations actually deepens trust. Huh? So talking to somebody around what isn't working for me will actually strengthen my relationship? This sounds counter intuitive. It's not. Time and time again from people I coach I get that feedback. Our relationship is better, it's more trusting, we're getting on better. Those silos that have been built up get knocked down.


In our lives and in our work we need upskill to have those conversations. At work we need to be training our leaders (right from the top), managers, team leaders and staff at all levels in how to receive feedback and how to have those delicate conversations.


The bottom line is that we need to be prepared to say 'Sorry'. A sincere, heartfelt, apology that will mend a broken relationship and pave the way to a brighter future.


Now back to Elton John!


Denise Hartley-Wilkins (CFHRINZ) is a an Organisation Development consultant and executive coach based in New Zealand. She has extensive HR and OD experience and specialises in building teams that hum (nicely!). Denise is a National Board Director with the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand (HRINZ).