What’s the first thing you do when someone is sad or upset? My natural instinct was always to say sorry. Even if wasn’t the least responsible for the problem, I used to think saying sorry will express empathy and show people that I am on their side.
One of the first things I learned working as a Happiness Engineer is that this is a poor strategy. As strange as it sounds, saying ‘thank you’ is almost always a better choice. Unless you completely screwed things up, and you mean it, ‘sorry’ is usually unnecessary and frames the conversation around guilt and blame rather than a resolution. But even if you did screw things up, it’s still much better to focus on a solution that will make it up.
If you say sorry, the rest of the conversation will navigate towards yourself, and the choices or mistakes you might have made. No one really cares about what happened in the past. All they want is to be heard, understood and catered to in this present moment. The first step to do this is to focus on them–and saying ‘thank you’ is a great way to start.
If you’re used to saying sorry, it will feel unnatural at first
Old habits die hard, and the first few times might feel pretty awkward. Still, I encourage you to try this for at least a week, and see how your conversations change in result.
Instead of “Sorry I’m late”, see what happens if you say “Thank you for your patience”.
Rather than “Sorry I’m such a mess”, try saying “Thank you for bearing with me”.
When you want to say “Sorry I made a mistake”, try “Thank you for bringing this to my attention”.
When feel the urge to say “Sorry I’m an idiot”, say instead “Thank you for your explanation, I see what you mean now”.
When someone is super frustrated and upset, there might be better ways to meet them when they are than saying ‘thank you’. But even then, the goal is to make them feel heard and understood rather than dwell in blame.