LISTEN TO EP.72
When Saying “I’m Sorry” is Not Enough
Do you have those relationships at work that are easier to avoid than confront? We’ve probably all said the words, “I’m sorry,” but that’s not always enough. Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., clinical and community psychologist, author, TEDx speaker, and master facilitator for The 5 Love Languages, believes that there is a right way to apologize when we mess up. She discusses the five apology languages, the most common workplace conflicts, how to determine what warrants an apology, and how to effectively apologize. Whether you are an employer or employee, discover today the steps that you can make to foster a healthy work environment. We spend the majority of our lives at work, so let’s take the steps to make it a place we grow our influence and thrive relationally.
Welcome to today’s episode of the Influencers Podcast. If you’re listening for Dave Donaldson and Scott Young, we’ve got something different for you today. I’m Mindy Wagner. I’m the co-host and guest host today. And joining me is Crissy Cochran. Crissy is the Executive Director of Communications at CityServe. Which just means that she handles every single detail involved with every single word, image, message, and branding, at City Serve. It’s massive work that she does. I serve as the Executive Assistant to the team, the Executive Team and the co-founders of City Serve. I have a long history as being a public speaking coach and trainer for many years. But anyways enough about us. We’re just so glad. This is today’s episode; the women are taking over and we are so excited about today’s topic. Our guest is Dr. Jennifer Thomas and we will introduce her shortly. We’re talking about workplace relationships and really how we make those healthy and functioning. Dr. Jen’s book is “Making Things Right at Work”. Before we dive into that Crissy, have you got any thoughts on this?
Oh, Mindy. I have so many thoughts about it because I’m just a relational person and everyone I do work with, or ministry with, life with, there’s their relationships and they are just full of dynamic and character and people. And obviously we’re all sinners. Okay. We all are. But it could be very complicated. And the thing that I love about the topic here today, as far as relationships at work and the people you work with is that whether you like it or not, you’re in relationship with these people that you work with in some form. I always think about my brother, I love him. He’s so great. But when he talks about people at work, he always refers to them just as coworkers. “So my coworkers this” and “my coworkers that”; it sounds so formal and disconnected but he also works with friends. He works with friends that we go to church with. It’s all about relationship, right? And how we, how interact with people.
I love that. It reminds me, not your brother, but your point about it is relationships and guarding them and keeping them healthy and how essential that is for a healthy organization. I know in a job that I had years ago, as part of the hiring process, they said, “We hire people we like, and we are hiring for a cultural fit”, because I love that saying, “Hire for will not skill”. We can train the skill, but a healthy organization is about healthy relationships. So much of that is intangible in the way that we interact with each other, which is why I think today’s guest, Dr. Jen, is key to this whole concept because we don’t always work great together and tension happens and misunderstandings happen. Just like in our families and our other relationships, you have to guard what you have to keep some practical things in place to make it healthy.
I think Dr. Jen will talk to us more about that. So are you ready? Crissy?
Jennifer Thomas is her name: PhD. She’s a Clinical Community Psychologist. She’s an author. TED speaker – love that. And Master Facilitator for the Five Love Languages, which is just awesome. I love the Five Love Languages. We recommend it to everyone. Today we’re talking about the other book that she is co-authored, which is “Making Things Right at Work”. And Dr. Jen teaches what to say. I love this concept. There are words around this, what to say in at workplace conversations, when that tension arises and comes up and we know that there are essentials to successful apologies. Dr. Jen is really going to give us some tools around what are those essential ingredients, because sometimes just saying “I’m sorry” is not enough.
It doesn’t cover what’s needed for that whole forgiveness factor. So she’ll help us learn some school, some skills around turning bad situations into good outcomes. And it’s really based on your love language and your apology language. I love that idea. She’s one of a handful of approved presenters for a book that is a number one best selling book. I tell everyone to read it- the “Five Love Languages”. She uses her skills in an interactive way to really impart these principles to us about improving our relationships, and how we speak others. Dr. Jen, welcome to the podcast. I love it that you’re known as the apology expert. So let’s just jump in right there with that idea.
Well, thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to our conversation today.
Thank you, so glad. It’s weird too. Well, first tell us a little background. How did you become known as the apology expert?
Offense is Inevitable
It was after I had co-written this book with Gary Chapman on how to apologize in a way that other people will receive. I just claimed that title for myself as a marketing exercise and it has stuck. But really it grew out of my interest in helping people to have the most healthy relationships possible. And what we know is that it’s important for them to feel loved and appreciated. And it’s great if you have a full love tank, but inevitably we’re going to offend each other. And when we do, it creates a barrier between us and the other person. I’ve been working with Dr. Chapman on some research and now on this book, “The Five Apology Languages”, and then our workplace title that you shared all about – how to keep relationships on track and how to show that we are really sincere in wanting to make things right when we mess up.
That’s so good. And you say often, “Sorry is just not enough”. Right? So you mess up. Like when you’re in relationship with someone, you’re working with them, doing ministry with them, you’re close. So when you’re close to someone and spending so much time with them, like you said, inevitably, you’re going to offend them. So you want to say, “Okay, I’m sorry”, but why is it so difficult sometimes just to get the words out? “I’m sorry.” Why is that?
Five “Apology Languages”
Well, for some people it’s hard on their pride or they may have been raised by parents, who taught them that it makes you look weak if you apologize. But another challenge that is unique is that people actually want to hear different things in an apology. So Gary Chapman and I are the first to say, “Wait a minute, what one person considers to be an apology is apparently not what another person considers to be an apology.” We all have different scripts. We’ve broken down from our research of asking thousands of people, what counts as an apology for you. We found that there were actually five different things that people wanted to hear.
Tell us more about those. Do you want to just dive in with that?
The Reflexive Apology
Sure. For some people, if you start with an apology by saying, I’m sorry, which is the reflexive thing that most of us do, for some people that’s completely satisfying, and they’ll say that’s a good apology, especially if you’re specific about what you did wrong and how it affected the other person. So go into expressing regret for the emotions that you’ve caused, for how you’ve frustrated or disappointed them. But for some people that’s not going to be enough.
The Magic Words
They might want to hear one of the other four things; they might want to hear you accept responsibility and say, “I was wrong”. And the problem, if we just say, “I’m sorry”, is that I can’t be very sorry. Something happened to you without taking any responsibility for it at all. And that’s why I was talking to someone just recently, I was consulting with her, and she said, “My mom always said, ‘Sorry, isn’t enough’.” “Sorry”: those are just words. The problem for her is now she’s married or she’s working with people. And when they give this reflexive apology and they say, “Sorry”, she’s like her mom. And she wants to say, “Well, sorry’s not enough”, but they don’t. They aren’t expecting that. In fact, they would feel blah, if she said that because for their parents, “Sorry”, was like the magic word. But for many people, we need to go onto our third kind of apology they want to hear, which is making amends or making restitution. And here we’re getting away from just using our words to actually showing some actions, because the old saying is true for some people: “Talk is cheap”. And what we really want is for people to spend some of their time or some of their money making us whole again. And then you could see these apology languages build on each other. You could also think of them as steps for a complete apology. People might still be waiting for something else.
The Apology Language of Repentance
Our fourth apology language is genuinely repenting or letting them know what you’re going to do to prevent this from happening again. So it literally means if you study the word “repentance”, it’s to turn around 180 degrees and walk the other way. How do we promise someone that we aren’t going to do this thing again? It may be that they’re going to believe you’re really sincere in your apology, when they see you put a new plan into place to prevent it from happening. And without that, they’re going to feel like, “Well, you’re just going to keep doing this. I forgave you last time, but I’m running out of patience with this.” So for some people, that’s what they most need to hear.
The Apology Language that Involves a Question
Finally, our final language of apology is actually a question. And that is, “Will you please forgive me?” People were expected to say that when they were a kid and other people were not, and guess what we all grew up and now for some people, that’s an expected part of any really good apology and others of us would never think to say that. We could be very sincere, say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong. I want to make amends. I’m going to change what I’m doing.” And then we walk away and we check it off and we think I’ve apologized. And we don’t realize that the other person was waiting for us to really hit the nail on the head.
That’s really good. Because we have to remember that just saying, “I’m sorry”. And then walking away, and someone, especially as a child, someone says, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And I go, “He didn’t mean it.” Are you really sorry? You know?
Love how you brought how we’re kind of programmed and trained as children to apologize. It plays a really big part. Now I’m not trying to give myself like any mom-points here, but I’m going to ask you Dr. Jen, if this sounds good when I’m trying to train my young children what to say, when they’ve offended someone or hurt someone. Let’s say my daughter hurt my son or hit my son. Okay, tell him, “I hit you. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” I was trying to teach them that you admit what you did, and say you shouldn’t have done that. Turn it around and say the actual words, “I’m sorry.” And then ask them, “Will you forgive me now?” Maybe I’ve drained this too much because now they say it robotically, “I hit you”. But after they really feel like there’s been rest.
Right, I think that’s fabulous. And I’d love that you have them be specific about what they did. “That was wrong.” I think that’s really key.
But that’s relational within the family; you could be really personal. There’s more intent and heart, but bringing this back to, and I would love your thoughts on this too, about the workplace.
Keys to Approach Any Apology Language
Some people probably think, well, “I just work with them”. “Why do I have to care about their feelings?” “All that work to do, just do it.” So Dr. Jen, I’ve got two questions that are really tied up with all of this. What you said, and what Crissy shared just now, and the first one is, how do you have some tools for us to know which one is appropriate?. Because I may have my own default or say, “Hey, I’m sorry. I really shouldn’t have done this. Or I spoke out, whatever it is, I name my offense. I say, “I’m really sorry. I did that.” And that that’s like my own language.
So number one, is it specific to a person and how do I know what you need? Number two, is it sometimes specific to the situation, like the size of the fault may dictate a more full scale apology?
Exactly. So let’s start with that part. First people are going to want to hear their primary apology language, especially if the offense is serious, as you mentioned, or if it’s repeated. That’s when, if you just hit ’em with a couple of phrases, but you don’t use their primary apology language, the problem we found is that they may not understand how sincere you really are. And then you also asked, “How do we know what each person might need to hear? Or if our script is going to work for them? And one thing that I suggest is starting off any apology with the phrase “I apologize”, and this has been a change I’ve made myself in recent years because I used to always start off with ‘I’m sorry”. What I found is that “I apologize”, is a good sort of a “vanilla base” from which you can lead into anyone’s apology language.
And it lets them know that you’re not going to try to blame them and that you’re just sort of setting the stage for what you want to say next, in terms of taking down that barrier, which was created by whatever offense you’re trying to heal. And then in terms of knowing for these people who are in my life, whether at home or at work, what do they need to hear? There are a couple of things you can do.
First on my website, we have a free apology language quiz that you can take. But you can also just have a conversation with people and ask them a couple of questions. Like when you hear a really good apology, what do they say? Or when you hear a terrible apology, what’s wrong with it? And chances are that their answer will give you a good idea about what their primary apology language is.
That’s good. And that quiz is on your website.
I love that. I want to go do that now; I want my whole family to do it. Yeah. Everyone we work with, Mindy, everyone. We work with everyone. We do life with everyone. Just go around, “please fill this out”. So I know how to apologize
Respond to what you need, the way you need to hear it. It’s so key with the, like the love languages, the way I’m wired to say, “I love you” is probably not the way my spouse needs it. It’s probably two apologies too?
Exactly. Mindy, your point is really well taken that we live with these people or we see them every day at work, but we don’t always know what makes them feel appreciated and what helps them to know how sincere you are when you’re trying to apologize to them
I have a question though, as far as in the workplace, what are some common ones that would arise? I mean, you’re spending sometimes 40 plus hours a week with people that maybe start off as complete strangers. Maybe you started off as friends. You want to have a good working relationship, but what are some examples of the most common conflicts that you’ve seen in the workplace?
Perceptions Become Your Reality
Christy, that’s such an important question. I do coaching and consulting with people in executive C-suite kind of situations. And I find a few things that come up over and over, and these are things that are going to happen in our new zoom culture. I think just as much or more than they ever did when we were spending 40 hour as a week in the office. One of the first things that I see is people assigning bad motives. When they think what is someone else trying to do? So it may be that that there’s nothing bad going on, but I find especially people who maybe are feeling insecure will say, “Oh, well, she’s just trying to make me look bad.” Or “He’s just trying to play up for the boss”, or “They’re trying to take credit for my work”. Brenee Brown has called these, the stories we tell ourselves in our head. And we have a section on this in our book, “Making Things Right at Work”, where we’re trying to get people as a first step to even recognize that they’re doing this and second to try to stop doing it because it really does make the conflict increase so much if you’ve ever been misjudged or you’ve had someone think badly of you when really you were doing nothing of the sort. You could see how quickly these bad motives being assigned can make things go to downhill so fast.
Your perception is your reality, right?
We’re very comfortable assigning motives to people. Psychology shows us that we give ourselves a break, but we don’t give that same break to other people. We need to watch that it’s like in the Bible where it talks about the spec and the log problem – that we tend to focus in on other people’s very small things and blow them up. But are we as careful to study our own behavior and see where we need to improve?
Now, a problem that I see also in the workplace is gossip or sharing things about other people that really are private and that shouldn’t be talked about. It creates dissension. And one of the ways it does it is it creates triangles. So if we have a secret and we go and tell someone else something about a third person immediately, we have a triangle and those are often not healthy and it creates alliances and it makes things fractious. And it’s very hard to work as a team. You feel like people are talking about you behind your back, instead of protecting you. I want to encourage people to think about in your workplace, are you the person who would just sit quietly when that happens, or would you be bold and say, “That person isn’t here to clarify this, or defend themselves”, if it’s really getting hostile. “I don’t want to talk about them while they’re not here.”
The Critical Ingredient: Self-Awareness
That is brave, Dr. Jen, in the few minutes we have left, I have five more questions. I don’t think I’m going to get ’em all, but how do we tune into knowing what warrants and apology? Because sometimes, I might have a nature that I walk around offending people and I’m kind of unaware that I am. I want that self-awareness to know, but do you have any tools or anything you can help us with with that?
To know when we’re offending people, if they aren’t telling us?
Yes. Like how do I know what warrants an apology? We can all list the obvious things, but sometimes it’s the less obvious things that sit with people and they feel offended and they want an apology,
Right?. This is hard because again, as with the spec and the problem, it’s not as obvious to us when we’ve stepped on someone’s toes, as it is obvious to them. So I would suggest just occasionally having a conversation with them. I actually did this with my extended family before the book, “Making Things Right at Work”, came out because I didn’t want to be talking how to do conflict resolution when other people in my own world were feeling upset with me. I really wanted to start at home with this and practice it. I said, “If I’ve said or done something that offends you, I hope you’ll let me know. I think it’s a good way for us to keep short accounts and just be willing to be teachable and I know I’m not perfect. I know I make mistakes.”
That’s really good. Okay. To me the whole success of that was in your question and your prompt to your family, which is, “I hope you’ll let me know.” It’s so much more than say, “If I did anything to offend you, I just want to say, I’m sorry.” It’s one step further. It’s “if I did, I’m unaware, but would you tell me?”,
It does need to include, “We need to talk about it and I want to change and prevent a recurrence.”
I think you give that example in your TED Talk. It’s kinda a politician’s apology. Like if I said it to anyone, “We’re so sorry, your feelings are hurt.” But also what I loved in your TED Talk, I’m just going to say is that when you had that “aha moment” it was for me too, when you said you’d had a thing with your husband and you thought you would apologize. And what he said to you is “I wanted you to say was I was wrong.”
That was a great moment. That’s a good moment for all of us to get ahold of not “just me”
We don’t realize people may be sitting there waiting for us to really nail it with our apology. And I was done, because I had said, “I was sorry”, but he needed to hear something else. And it was awkward in the moment, but I was willing to say it because it was still, to me, “I’m sorry”. And I was wrong. We’re pretty similar. So I said, “Okay, I was wrong too”. But it just made things so much better with him. I’ve continued to think about it and how it might help other people who are stuck in their own relationships where they feel like they’ve done what they can to make it better. But things aren’t getting better. What we have are some new tools that people can try.
This is so helpful because as influencers in the world, wherever God has placed us in ministry, in a corporate setting in the church, wherever it may be, we want to have good relationships. And we know that when we’re in good relationships, that’s really when you can be the most influential, right? I mean, how are you supposed to influence others and lead them closer to Jesus if they don’t even like you, or they don’t trust you and there’s constant conflict and you can’t forgive. There’s so much to that. I really love all that you’re discussing here, how we can just foster a healthy work environment.
Leadership and Apologies
Dr. Jen, one question I have too. What are tools that a leader needs to be aware of, whether it’s the organization or a team or, the group that they work with, that they, that awareness and the tools that a leader needs in this whole subject of apologies in, in healthy work relationships.
One of my favorite things that we do is when a leader calls and asks a member of my team to come in and work with their group, the first thing we do is have everyone take our apology language quiz, and then we put their results in a grid and we post it someplace publicly or on a shared drive so that when someone makes a mistake and needs to apologize in the workplace, they can make sure that they don’t leave out. It’s the one thing that’s most important for that employee to hear. And we’ve had really good success with looking at the distribution on a team and how varied it is: what people want to receive in their apologies. We found that none of the five got more than 37% of the votes among different work. So what that told us is you can’t guess what people want to hear, it’s important to ask or to have them take a paper and pencil test.
It just does also map back to the importance that the leader is safeguarding the culture and apologies and offenses erode culture; that awareness is many times an apology and how we approach it. Makes all the difference.
Yeah. I agree. And piggybacking on that, I would say it’s really important for the leader, as you said, to be aware of what’s happening relationally, and to take it seriously. I’ll tell you a personal story. I was at a shop this week where I get my car worked on and there, at a prior time, had been an awkward situation going on behind the desk where a man was fussing at his female coworker. And I brought it back up with her and said, “I was really uncomfortable with how he was talking to you. Are you okay?” And “Do you want me to tell the boss what I witnessed? Do you want me to vouch for you?” And she said, “No, don’t bother. It’s been that way the whole 10 years I’ve been here and he’s not going to do anything”. Let that be a word of warning to leaders, to be active to document if there are things happening that shouldn’t be happening and to show people that you are willing to make changes, to have a more healthy work culture.
That’s so powerful. You hear that story. She’s learned to tolerate him, but this is a reflection on the leader. It’s the leader, who’s tolerating this
I’m excited about your book. I love having a good healthy workplace; just good work with friends, but knowing that there’s going to be stuff that comes up and then how do we handle it? So I’m get your book, Dr. Jen, where can we find your book?
Well it’s at most major bookstores. I do encourage people to try to order it from your local bookshop. And there are also links on my website, on my homepage, which is drjenthomas.com. That’s D R J E N thomas.com. And that’s also where my free resources tab is. We don’t just want to sell books. We want to put free resources in the hands of people who need them to have the best relationships at work and at home.
That’s so good. I love that. And nothing like a good free resource. So thank you, Dr. Jen, it’s drjenniferthomas.com, take advantage of those resources and her book.
Thank You so much for joining us today.
Oh, thank you for how having me, I enjoyed talking with you all.
Thanks again. Bye. Bye ladies.