The news reported that President Obama acknowledged a “poor choice of words” for some remarks he made about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gotta give our President mad props for taking responsibility for his words. When two people have a misunderstanding, the receiver’s feelings trump giver’s intent. What I mean by that is, you can’t ignore how a person feels just because you didn’t mean to offend them.
Let’s use a common workplace example: Joe writes Mary an email. Mary feels hurt as a result. Joe says “Well, I didn’t mean it. So, you shouldn’t feel hurt.” Well, just because Joe says “I didn’t mean it” doesn’t repair the damage. Mary still feels hurt.
I’ve talked before about empathy. This is another example of how empathetic behavior can positively impact working relationships.
Joe could say, “Mary, I never intended for you to be hurt by my email. Our working relationship is important to me. I’d like the opportunity to explain.”
Be careful asking questions like: What can we do to move past this? Or how can I make this up to you? If you ask those questions, then you’re obligating yourself to the response. Using our example, if Joe asks Mary what he can do to fix the situation and she says apologize…then Joe either needs to apologize or hurt Mary’s feelings a second time by refusing.
In these situations, I have a lot of respect for people who take responsibility for their actions, regardless of their feelings for the other person. It’s not even about whether the comment is right or wrong. It’s about being personally accountable for what was said. People who are unable and/or unwilling to take responsibility for their words or actions drive permanent wedges in their relationships with others.
Misunderstandings will happen. It’s all a part of being human. Handling them by holding yourself accountable is what defines true leadership.1