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The Fraudulent “Sorry You Feel that Way” Phrase in Business

What six words should you avoid saying in business? “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Here’s the thing—this isn’t really an apology. First, you can’t actually be sorry for the way someone else feels. You can only be sorry for your own behavior and what’s in your control. You can’t control how someone else feels, so don’t apologize for it.

More important, however, is that the sentiment behind those words is something along the lines of: “Look, I don’t know why you’re being irrational about this. This isn’t my fault, and I think it’s ridiculous that you’re upset with me.” Even if that’s not what you mean, that’s almost always the way it sounds to the person you’re talking with, and it’s about as effective as slap to the face. That’s because what you’re communicating is that the way someone feels about a situation is wrong. Even if you believe it’s true, it isn’t the most persuasive way to change someone’s mind, or feelings. It’s also insulting and a problem because telling someone “sorry you feel that way” avoids taking responsibility for your role in the situation.

So what’s the solution? First, if you did something requiring an apology, own it and apologize. Better to say, for example, “I’m really sorry we weren’t able to deliver on our promise.” Then, do what’s needed to fix the situation. When dealing with an upset customer, for example, you may have done everything right. It may not be your fault, but it’s still your problem, and it very well may be up to you to offer a solution. In that case, don’t apologize. Instead, try this: “I can tell you’re really frustrated. Let me see what I can do to try to fix this.” The goal is to get on the same side of the customer you’re talking with, and you may be surprised at how much of a difference that can make.

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