I’m Sorry You Feel That Way

by  Heather Coleman-Voss  |  Leadership Development

A key employee on your team asks to speak with you about a sensitive issue in which you have a role. You have an “Open Door Policy” so the two of you meet. When she explains the issues from her point of view, your impatient response is: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Your spouse has been struggling to communicate with you for several days, and finally asks to have a conversation. Visibly upset, he tells you what is bothering him and how it’s affecting him – and your marriage. After listening for a few minutes, your angry response is: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

A customer complains about a product – on your company Facebook page. Your public response? “We’re sorry you feel that way.”

On her blog, customer service and leadership expert @KateNasser advises:

Bury the phrase “I am sorry you feel that way.”

It is a masquerade of an apology that scars team relationships. 

It seems to scar many important relationships. I recently posted a Facebook poll, requesting feedback on how people feel when a boss, spouse, co-worker, parent or friend responds with the phrase “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

The majority of the responses fell into these categories:

  • Marginalized
  • Annoyed
  • Brushed Off
  • Disrespected
  • Negated
  • “Handled”
  • Invalidated
Comments included strong statements such as:

“Let’s finish the discussion. Simply being sorry doesn’t finish the conversation.” @mikehenrysr

“This is pretty much the classic disarming response. But it doesn’t really work because it oozes insincerity. It really means: Your opinion is making me uncomfortable. I want to move on because there is no real way for me to address your concerns.” – @kmclogan

“If not done properly, it almost always comes off as ‘I really don’t care how you feel, because you’re wrong and I’m right. Now please just drop it.'” @Mitchcon4

“This response is a way for that person to avoid any personal responsiblity…its a cop out, invalidating response.” – @ClarisaGayer

The original intent of this statement was to validate the thoughts and feelings of the person with whom we are speaking. Whether or not we agree with their perspective, the idea was that we acknowledge we have heard and understand what they have said. Unfortunately, this expression has evolved into something else – an excuse that denies any responsibility on our part. This phrase invalidates the other person and deflects the importance of their words. It also serves as an excuse for us not to look at ourselves and any part we may have played in the situation. When used improperly, this expression is a serious form of disrespect – one that also stunts our own professional integrity, emotional growth and the relationship itself.

Responding to a serious concern with sarcasm, fear-based anger and denial of responsibility breeds mistrust. The  impact of distrust will destroy a company culture, a relationship, the loyalty of your customers. A tough customer, an irate employee, an angry spouse or partner – all of these people are expressing themselves for a reason: They want to be heard. Do we have the courage to listen?

As leaders in our professions and in our family life, it is extremely important that we realize respect is earned through our actions as well as our words. When responding in difficult situations, our facial expressions, body language and voice inflection are key to positive communication.

People who bring tough issues to us are doing so because they value the relationship. They want to address the situation so that the relationship will continue to grow and move forward. When we truly listen and respond with empathy, mutual trust is reinforced and the relationship deepens. And after all, isn’t this exactly what we want with our team, our relationship, our customers?









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What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  18 Oct 2011  |  Reply

I commented about this over on Facebook too. The phrase is only a method of denying responsibility if I walk away. If someone, even my boss, says that phrase to me, it’s like the first half of the sentence. I’m not moving until they say “but…” and finish the sentence. If the comment is fully stated, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but that’s your problem, I’m not going to do anything about it”; then it becomes my responsibility to do the very same thing. “OK, I’m sorry you feel that way but I’m not going to let this end right here. If you’re not going to do anything about it, I certainly will.”

There are less disrespectful ways to say this but I’m making a point. It’s a statement of fact. You may leave the company, or simply wallow in misery until you screw up the guts to get another job. The single best thing you can do for the relationship is to let it be known that without better explanation, you have no choice but to keep pursuing the issue. In the interest of a great working relationship, if you’re willing to be open and work to a resolution, then you should continue to push until you understand how either you’re wrong, or it’s unreasonable to expect resolution at this time. If the other person is unwilling to help resolve the issue, then you must do it on your own. You’ll either leave or die a little every time the issue comes up again.

All of that is to say, don’t let someone in a position of responsibility deny that very responsibility using this phrase. Problems don’t require denial, they require solutions.


Heather Coleman-Voss  |  19 Oct 2011  |  Reply

I like the proactive stance that you are taking here – it’s an interesting angle that I hadn’t thought of while writing this article. I’d love to hear more about this “pursue the issue or move on” idea – I think it would be a very insightful blog post!

Thank you, you’ve given me more to think about!


Tristan Bishop  |  18 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Awesome. Absolutely awesome.

This applies in all areas, just as you’ve shown. For brands to show genuine empathy, they must empower leaders who possess it and proclaim it. Then, sincere interest in customers will naturally flow from the employees.

Terrific post.

Heather Coleman-Voss  |  19 Oct 2011  |  Reply

The empowerment is so incredibly important and directly impacts the genuine interest of the employees. I think that’s key – interest in people must be genuine in order for customer service to be excellent. It starts at the top.

Heather :)

Pamela Bellaver  |  18 Oct 2011  |  Reply

I’m so glad you wrote about this topic, it hits a nerve with a lot of people and although often “meant” as an uncomfortable apology, this statement says “I’m not changing and have no part in this disagreement or discussion”. It can be very invalidating. As difficult as it can be, and we’ve all been there, it is important to truly listen to what others are saying and validate their feelings, especially when we know we bear some responsibility for the current strain in the relationship. Most of the time, we know if we’ve done something that can be hurtful, that’s why it’s so hard to hear how someone else is feeling. The value in taking responsibility and showing care and concern for the other person can truly change relationships and lives. It ultimately pays itself forward and others take the lead in doing the same if you take the time to do this with them.

Another excellent post…

Heather Coleman-Voss  |  19 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Thank you for taking the time to write this post! You are correct, truly listening to others *particularly* if we may bear some of the responsibility is so important for successful relationships. I like what you wrote here:

“The value in taking responsibility and showing care and concern for the other person can truly change relationships and lives. It ultimately pays itself forward and others take the lead in doing the same if you take the time to do this with them.”

Thanks for your insights!

Glenn Twiddle  |  20 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Awesome. HEard Robbins talking about something like this once, and yeah, choosing our words carefully is definitely worth the little bit of time it takes to avoid the ‘autopilot’ things we just come up with.

Even asking, ‘how are you’ when really we don’t mean that at all, we mean ‘hi’

Great article.

Glenn Twiddle

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