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Wish you’d never said that? Here’s how to save the day and perhaps your job

When you’re working in a high-stress environment, it’s not uncommon for tempers to flare and words said that shouldn’t be. It’s unfortunate and, often, unprofessional. And it needs to be corrected as soon as possible.

If you’ve directed an outburst at the boss or made a hurtful remark to your staff, damage control is in order. Mostly, that means an apology—either for what was said or how it was said.

The worst: Words with the boss

The worst of all scenarios is an outburst to the managing partner. What then? Whatever you do, don’t ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen. The words were said and the emotions aren’t going to die there all by themselves.

No matter how right you may have been, an apology is in order. But don’t do it immediately. Sleep on it and let the adrenalin simmer down.

The next day, set an appointment with the partner and speak from the heart.

There are two types of apologies, and with either one, it’s essential to show a resolve to change the behavior. That shows remorse. It also shows that you respect the partner and you want to keep your job.

Apology type #1: When you’re in the wrong

If you were wrong, admit it. Say something along the lines of, “I am sorry about the discussion yesterday. I realize that I was excited and wasn’t listening to what you were trying to say. Now that I have had a chance to think about it, I see your side. I will not allow that kind of behavior to happen again.”

Apology type #2: When you’re in the right

What if you were in the right? Well, you still need to apologize, but only for the outburst. Here, you’d phrase it like, “I am sorry about yesterday. I still feel strongly about my position, but I handled it poorly and I regret that I caused you discomfort. I won’t do that again.”

In either circumstance, be careful about making the promise to never let it happen again unless you know you can live up to the promise. If you’re actually prone to being a little hot-tempered, a more truthful statement is, “In the future, I’m going to examine my responses before I speak and I’m going to make a real effort to squelch it.”

What happens next is out of your hands. The chips are going to fall where they may.

At worst, the partner’s response will be, “I don’t want to hear your apology” or “don’t bother me now.” If so, take the hint and update the resume.

But an apology has to be given. Without it, don’t expect the job to last long.

Also bad: Words with staff

What if the outburst was directed to a staffer and other staff members have witnessed it? It’s inconsiderate to force people to watch a confrontation. Everybody should get an apology for having had to witness it.

Make the response sincere: “I regret my outburst and I regret that you all had to see it. I’m embarrassed and want you to know that my intention is that you never see that again.” And again, be prepared for the worst. Those staffers may say the outburst was unfair or uncalled for. If so, listen to what they say. They may need to let their feelings out. After all, it wasn’t your shining moment.

Rephrasing statements for a better outcome

It’s easy to see how outbursts require apologies. But it’s also a good idea to watch how you phrase your messages to your co-workers. We all wander the world carrying an invisible sign that says “make me feel important.” And careless words can make anybody feel stupid and insignificant.

Here are three examples of the worst words or statements and suggestions for rephrasing:

  1. “Why” statements: “Why did you do that?” or “why is this late?” or “why can’t you pull your own weight?” These statements immediately set up a barrier. It’s far better to ask for the reasoning behind what was done: “I know you had good reasons for taking that approach. May I ask what they are?” The word “why” puts people on the defensive. It tells that other person “you were wrong, and I’m demanding an explanation.” By contrast, “I want to understand your reasoning” is an invitation to a constructive discussion.
  1. “No” statements: “No, you can’t do that.” The word “no” throws up a psychological barrier. People don’t want to know what they can’t do; they want to know what the can do. Try putting a conditional provision at the end: “I can’t let you do that now, but how about in an hour?” Put a positive spin on the end of the “no”: “I can’t do X, but what I can do is Y.” Now you’re giving something to the other person.
  1. Blame statements: “This is just like you” or “here we go again with your lousy work” or “are you trying to destroy the team?” Instead of trying to lay blame, assume a positive intent. For example, instead of “this is just like you to turn in another late report,” try “I’ve noticed that a lot of your reports have been late recently. There must be something getting in your way. Is there any way I can help you?”

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