The View from HR

The power of six simple words

June 17, 2012 

How do you end a verbal battle at work that just will not stop?

We have all been there. There is no real issue left to resolve. The decisions have been made. Still, the irritating dialogue flows like a beer tap drain at a baseball game. “Yes you did.” “No I did not.” “You are doing this because ...”

Where there is no real issue left and the verbal effluent is primarily emotional, try these six words: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way” says that you hear the emotion and you understand the words used. It says you are sorry your sparring partner still has negative feelings. It says you acknowledge those feelings but are no longer willing to do the toxic two-step. It says “I’m done.”

“Don’t give me that junk about being sorry, you know exactly what you have done here and I’m not finished yet!” Say it again: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Say it as much as you like, there is no royalty fee charged by this column. Let its power liberate you from the tyranny of irrationality, self-interest, lingering anger, verbosity, or your friend’s inability to accept a true apology for a past transgression.

No more debate

Some may say these six words are not genuine. I disagree. You likely are sorry that your friend or workmate feels the way they do. You just simply cannot go over it again and again. Any attempt on your part to engage in more debate brings a level of pain no one should endure.

These six words work best when you do not need a continued cooperative dialogue, or you believe your friend will eventually come back around to a normal relationship. These words can sometimes do damage when used alone. Managers, use your judgment when shutting down a persistent employee monologue: “... and I hope we can now go on to work on all the other important things we have to do here” can be a good addition.

Right motives key

As an employee, you may have a manager who cannot let go of past issues, or continually raises non-work issues with you, either as their confidant, counselor or participant. “I’m sorry you feel that way” works here as well, perhaps supplemented by “and I think I have told you all I can to help answer your questions on this.” The plan here is to remind the manager that this conversation has gone past a barrier which should have been respected. Decent managers get the clue; bad ones rarely do.

Workplace conflict serves a valuable purpose when it is about the right things and between people with the right motives. Getting issues out on the table and taking the risks necessary to have them heard and decided is the sign of a healthy, productive workgroup.

So, this column failed to meet your expectations? I’m sorry you feel that way ... but do come back next time.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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