When you've unintentionally angered someone, your first instinct may be to explain that making them mad wasn't your goal and try to elaborate on what you really meant. If you've noticed that it never really seems to calm the person down, here's why: your intentions matter less than the consequences of your actions.
Picture: Greg Chiasson/Flickr
If someone has done something that has inconvenienced you, your intentions don't address the fact that what the other person did wasn't appropriate. Similarly, on the other side, if you're the offending party, you may think that if the other person only understood what your intentions were that person would understand and relax. It just doesn't work that way. Instead, focus on the consequences and acknowledge how the other person feels and has been wronged, says Peter Bregman at Daily Good:
As it turns out, it’s not the thought that counts or even the action that counts. That’s because the other person doesn’t experience your thought or your action. They experience the consequences of your action.
It’s stunningly simple, actually. When you’ve done something that upsets someone — no matter who’s right — always start the conversation by acknowledging how your actions impacted the other person. Save the discussion about your intentions for later. Much later. Maybe never. Because, in the end, your intentions don’t matter much.
What if you don’t think the other person is right — or justified — in feeling the way they do? It doesn’t matter. Because you’re not striving for agreement. You’re going for understanding.
Bregman concedes that this is easier said than done — our own emotional resistance makes us want to put ourselves at the centre of the story. We want to believe that if we just explain our side the right way, the other person will get it. We think that if the other person doesn't get it, something's wrong with that person and that anything different would be betraying ourselves and how we feel — but, at the core, it's really just about empathy.
If you start the conversation by acknowledging the other person, both of you will be ready to move on from the issue sooner, without it blowing up any further. Bregman offers this tip to make it easier:
Here’s a trick to make it easier. While they’re getting angry at you, imagine, instead, that they’re angry at someone else. Then react as you would in that situation. Probably you’d listen and let them know you see how angry they are.
And if you never get to explain your intentions? What I have found in practice — and this surprised me — is that once I’ve expressed my understanding of the consequences, my need to justify my intentions dissipates.
That’s because the reason I’m explaining my intentions in the first place is to repair the relationship. But I’ve already accomplished that by empathizing with their experience. At that point, we’re both usually ready to move on.
And if you do still feel the need? You’ll still have the opportunity, once the other person feels seen, heard, and understood.
If we succeed in doing all this well, we’ll often find that, along with our relationships, something else gets better: our behaviour.
Hit the link below to check out some specific examples where Bregman says this approach would be useful, like an unintentionally infuriating email to a coworker, or arriving to a dinner date later than you planned.
What To Do When You've Made Someone Angry [Daily Good]