How to say "I'm sorry" - steps to resolve conflicts

You know, there is some other way to fix conflict without rage tweet, 10min read medium post, shutting down project and/or social account 💁

— Mariko Kosaka (@kosamari) January 15, 2017

Before you jump in: This post is about how I approach resolving conflicts. If you like it, maybe use it. If you don't, then don't :)

A bit of context: My view is highly influenced by the fact I grew up in Japan where we have culture of avoiding conflicts. I say "I'm sorry" a lot, yes, it's not just Canadians who says "sorry" all the time. I also spent the first 5 years of my career dealing with human conflicts. Sometimes it was solving arguments with engineers as PM, and sometimes it was dealing with difficult customers in a support role. In both cases, my single goal was to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible. These are roughly the steps I took when I found myself in conflicts.

It's best to resolve conflict immediately.

Think about when you have opposing opinion or uncomfortable feeling with what someone said or did. You might first think "Wait, seriously ?" then the feeing soon turn into "OMG I can't believe they said or did that", then it will turn into "How dare they said or did that".

It's a lot easier to resolve conflict when somebody is in "wait, seriously?" stage, but it is very short moment (I am talking about seconds). The moment they made frown face, or the moment they replied to your tweet with "What? 😕" (and before they send you follow up tweet about what they disagree with you). If you sense someone was offended but you were not aware they would take it negatively, simply say "I'm sorry I didn't mean to offend you." or "I'm sorry, I was being sarcastic." or whatever the combination of apology + your reasoning.

Keep in mind timing is the most important part. Once you miss the moment, the person starts internalizing their discomfort and argument. When someone is in "OMG I can't believe they said or did that" stage, your reasoning maybe taken as an excuse or dishonest apology, even if you didn't mean it to be so.

You need a different strategy for resolving a conflict when you realize someone was offended after you made whole speech or finished writing your twitter thread.

OK I have a bigger conflict, how do I resolve ?

At this point, the person in front of you may have turned smile into frown, your twitter mention may be flooded with opposing comments, or your GitHub comments may be getting massive 😕 and 👎 vote. Let's resolve the conflict.

First, asses the situation. Remember or read through what you said or did, then read the comments from person who has a conflict with you. Put yourself in the shoes of the person and identify what made them so oppose to what you said or did. Why are they upset? Was there any miss-communication? Can you understand why they have different opinion?

Second, pick a path from the following.

  1. I think I did something wrong
  2. I think I was right, but I can see where/why opposing reaction happened.
  3. I think I was right, and opponent is throwing me arguments just for the sake of arguing with me.

Each path has different way to resolving conflicts. But before you go into that, keep in mind the most important mission here is to make the opponents feel heard.

1. You think something you said or did was wrong.

Just say "I'm sorry what I said/did was wrong". No "but..." no "what I meant was...", no "you may be thinking...", just say I'm sorry.

If you feel like simple "I'm sorry" is too casual (especially over text communication), add thank you instead of explanation. Something like "Thank you for pointing out my mistake", "Thank you for calling me out", "Thank you for showing me how it should've been done."

To go above and beyond, find what you admire or learned from the person who called you out. Say "I'll try to do ____ like you". This demonstrates you really care about the person, and not just apologizing to quickly blow off responsibility.

2. You think something you said or did was right, but you can see where opponent is coming from.

Say "I'm sorry, I can see where you are coming from" (Again, no "but..." and no "what I meant was ...").
It may be hard to say sorry in this situation, because while you understand where opponents are coming from, you also think you are not wrong from your point of view. But, in this situation, it is not about who was right or wrong. It is about the fact someone was upset about what you said or did.

Usually (in my experience), "I can see where you are coming from" is a good chance for both parties to acknowledge that the argument has no right or wrong answer.

Once both parties established that understanding, you may ask the opponent "What should I have done?". Maybe it was delivery in your speech that made them feel like you were dismissing them, maybe you failed to acknowledge something that is very near and dear to someone's heart. Key in this situation is that someone felt like they were not being heard, and voiced that concern. Goal of the conversation is to make them feel heard and learn to avoid the same mistake next time.

3. You think something you said or did was right, but the opponent is being completely unreasonable.

This is the case when someone is having argument for the sake of having argument, or someone have other issue with you and want to attack you in anyway they can. In this case, you have a choice to make, walk away or fight.

The core of resolving conflict is to make the opponent feel heard, but when someone is intentionally creating conflict, most likely, they already got "feeling heard" satisfaction when they shouted at you. You don't need to acknowledge them.

In stead of "You are clearly being jerk, good bye." which give them another chance to shout at you, just walk away. I know, you might want to throw middle finger for the one last time, but don't. The best way to end this cycle is with silence.

Occasionally, you might need to pick to fight. It maybe that the argument affects a group of people you care about, or maybe you strongly believe the person has been toxic. In that case, buckle up, gather data, be logical, be classy, and try to fight.

Keep in mind, this may turn you into the unreasonable one too. Too much focus on fighting and you may forget what you were defending. To prevent that, I periodically run this conflict resolving exercise. Your opponent may be really bad at communicating, and mid fight, you may realize what seemed so unreasonable was actually reasonable. If so, just follow the steps and say "I'm sorry".

It's not easy.

Phew, this looks a lot of "I'm sorry". It took me a bit of practice to set aside my ego, assess the situation objectively and resolve conflicts with an apology. Listening to my opponent in a conflict and understanding where they come from gave me chance to practice empathy. I certainly still screw up apologies and make the situation worse time to time, but it is getting easier and easier to say "I am sorry". It takes practice :)