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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

What Can You Do When Someone Won’t Forgive You?

Dear Crucial Skills,

A few years ago I was promoted to leadership while my senior colleague who also wanted the role was not. Since then, our relationship has deteriorated. He has said he feels personally attacked by direction I’ve given the team. I have tried to make it safe, contrast, state my path, start with heart, but to no avail. I’ve even given him small tokens of appreciation—a treat or a gift card—but he won’t acknowledge my efforts to rebuild trust or communicate with me. I’ve been through your communication courses and received communication coaching, and I regularly seek feedback from my peers and leaders, and they say they feel safe to communicate openly with me. My manager and VP have said he has a personal issue with me, but none of us has been able to get him to open up. How can I “Make It Safe” for someone who clearly doesn’t feel safe?

Olive Branch

Dear Olive Branch,

Kudos. It sounds like you have gone to great lengths to mend the strain in your relationship and communicate openly and respectfully. That alone should bring you some comfort, for while we all hope the Crucial Conversations skills will lead to better results in such moments—and they usually do—there is nothing you can do that will guarantee another responds in kind. When they don’t, we are left to take comfort in having acted with courage and respect.

That’s not to say you are out of options. Here are a few ideas that occurred to me while thinking about your question.

First, apologize. Please forgive this point if you have already done so. I assume there’s a good chance you have, yet you don’t mention it in your question. You say you have been kind, that you’ve tried to explain where you’re coming from, clear up confusion, and so forth, but nowhere do you state you have made a sincere apology.

You might be wondering why you should apologize when you intended no harm. I have often wondered the same thing, and it wasn’t until recently, after unintentionally hurting someone I deeply care about, that I learned an apology—not an explanation—is often necessary to assuage unintentional hurt or offense.

If you unintentionally step on someone’s toes—and I mean literally, not metaphorically—you apologize. If you accidentally bump into a stranger, you apologize. If you nearly clip a pedestrian with your Buick while looking left instead of right, you apologize profusely.

Sometimes we apologize to admit wrongdoing, and sometimes we apologize to express empathy. If you haven’t done the latter, I’d try it. You might say, “I hope you know I didn’t mean any offense when I accepted this position. I’m really sorry the outcome has been hard for you, and I sympathize. I never meant to hurt you, and I’m sorry if I have.”

Remember that a sincere apology will be more important than what you say.

Second, try CPR. Again, I could be wrong, but what I glean from your question is that you have been kind, you’ve tried to clear up misunderstanding, and you’ve sought feedback on your communication skills, all of which is important but none of which gets at the heart of the matter, which appears to be this: resentment.

Resentment is a relationship issue, and that is what you need to discuss. I know this is a much harder conversation, but it may be you have done everything right except confront the elephant in the room.

It has been said that resentment is a kind of poison, and certainly it becomes a self-defeating form of pettiness when wallowed in, but resentment can also be a kind of balm, bringing one healing and protection on the way to acceptance and forgiveness. Medicine and poison are separated only by shades of gray.

Whether your colleague is beyond the palliative phase of resentment and into the toxic phase is anyone’s guess. You may find out if you bring it up. More important, you may find out why he feels resentful, which would give way to open discussion.

Third, be direct. What we don’t talk out, we act out. Your colleague’s behavior is a symptom of what he has so far refused to express, and given the duration of his silence, I’m inclined to think it’s deep-seated. The right opener—even a confrontational one—may be the way to break through.

I’m not advocating aggression or disrespect. I’m simply saying that, in my experience, when feelings are buried deep, an invitation to talk isn’t enough. A courageous confrontation, on the other hand, can bring everything to the surface.

What does that look like?

Well, when I’ve done it with people I care about, and when others have cared enough to be so bold with me, it looks like getting cornered in a room alone at the right time and feels like “I care about you too damn much to let this go on, and I’m not leaving until we talk it out.”

Should you take this approach? I’m not sure. What’s at stake? What do you want long term? Is the relationship worth it? There are good reasons why you might not. There are good reasons why you might. It’s up to you.

Good luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

15 thoughts on “What Can You Do When Someone Won’t Forgive You?”

  1. Justin

    Great article Ryan!

  2. David

    this apparent apology in the article [You might say, “I know I didn’t mean any offense when I accepted this position. I’m really sorry the outcome has been hard for you, and I sympathize. I never meant to hurt you, and I’m sorry if I have.”] isn’t actually an apology bc the speaker uses the word “sorry” instead of “apologize” also delete the word “hope” at the beginning – these sentences are backhanded and put the reason for the hearers suffering on themselves (hearer). Say it like this instead “I didn’t mean any offense to you when I accepted this position. I feel this outcome has been hard on our relationship. I never meant to hurt you because I value you and our relationship. I apologize and want to work toward a better relationship if you want to. I apologize, thanks for listening to me.” Then drop it and end the call or meeting, the hearer might be ready to respond or they might not be, an apology expects nothing in return, be ready for that.

    1. Debbie

      I agree 100%
      I’m sorry and I apologize are very different. The first is very generic and shows no personal accountability and the second is personal and shows sincerity. Thank you for restructuring the statement to help others see the difference.

      1. Tracy

        I agree they are different, but I found the opposite to be true…working with the public years ago, we were trained to say “I apologize” when trying to appease an upset customer. It always felt very generic, very non-personal (“I’m-only-saying-this-because-it’s-my-job”). I would personally find “I’m sorry” to be much more genuine.

        1. Debbie

          I think that people will feel differently according to their own lifes events.
          From my personal experience Someone caused my child and I serious permanant physical and mental harm and when found guilty of negleance in the Plane crash and then asked by the press why he has never reached out to the person he hurt and was only concerned about his plane; his response was “SORRY this ever happened.
          He has never apologized or shown any concern for what he did to my little boy and I. He was only SORRY that he got caught and it hurt his beloved plane.

          This is the link to the plane crash.

          You need to click on the pictures and links to see them all.

          I’m still looking for a law firm to take care of this.

        2. James Brown

          I think the most important part of a sincere apology is the tone more than the vocabulary. It’s true that if you say “I’m sorry that you got upset” it’s not an apology. But either “I’m sorry I did something to upset you” or “I apologize for doing something to upset you” should work if sincere.

          1. davidwillers

            100% James!

        3. davidwillers

          Agree this makes sense too. if its ones job then the apology is not sincere, and the hearer will see right through it.

  3. Katie Brick

    Wow. This is golden. I love the idea of apologizing even when what happened was unintentional. It certainly changed my perspective. Thank you.

  4. Lynette

    I disagree. Why should he apologize for being recognized and promoted? I believe an apology will only allow future disagreements and resentments to derail their purpose whenever something doesn’t go their way or they disagree with a decision.

    1. Stephanie Tanner

      I agree. I don’t think people should apologize for being recognized and promoted in the work place. I do agree that a frank conversation about on going resentment and their working relationship is necessary. If LW is not their supervisor, their supervisor should step in and discuss the impact on productivity and cohesion this ongoing problem is causing.

  5. Teresa

    I liked the idea of cornering the person. I did this with a friend recently and it saved the friendship.

    I would maybe not assume I knew the reason behind the cold behavior though—maybe the friend is resenting the fact that he didn’t get promoted, or maybe it is something else that the writer did or was currently doing (such as taking on a superior air).

    I like the recommendation to decide what the relationship is worth to you. If it is important enough to you, I would say “keep trying”. If it’s not, then you’ll never get them to open up (and I wouldn’t either). Sometimes it takes multiple attempts to show someone that you truly care about their concerns.

    I think it was Ron McMillan, one of the authors of Crucial Conversations, who said that after marrying a woman with children, one of his stepchildren was clearly not doing well (not necessarily a problem with him) and he tried many times on many occasions to find out what was wrong–making guesses at the problem and all the “make it safe” practices. She eventually did open up to him.

  6. View from the other side

    I was once on the other side a similar relationship where a former peer and confidant was promoted to become my manager. I have a few thoughts based on my experience. Some aspects of our relationship were different. For example, the person was a peer and confidant but I was not competing for the job.

    My new manager has a different communication style than previous managers and is not experienced in the type of work my team does. Her vision for the future she wants to build downplayed our accomplishments from the past. It would have helped if she had more clearly stated her appreciation for the hard work we had previously done.

    She decided to move some of our projects to another team but didn’t give clear directions about work our team would be doing. The change felt abrupt with no time to find an off ramp. It would have helped to identify parts of the project we could complete as well as providing a new project we could get excited about.

    There were also times when it did not feel safe to ask questions.

    Other factors contributed to what became a challenging year. I blame myself for some of that by being slow to adapt to the new organization. Thankfully, I finally did. However, I also think a new manager can do a lot to ease the transition with clearly defined plans, partnership with the team, and making the space safe for questions.

  7. Unapologetic GenXer

    I disagree in this situation. If someone feels slighted because they were passed over, perhaps they should look inward as to why they were not promoted. Perhaps they only think of themselves as better suited. Leadership made a choice they felt was in the best interest of the company, period. Accept something you had no control over and work to be better (there or elsewhere). I lived something similar. I was hired on to run a transportation charter division for city conventions and business bookings. Another person in the office, who was tasked with showing me around, took an immediate dislike to me once we were out of the purview of leadership. I asked what I had done to offend them and just got a smirk and dirty look. After the first few weeks they started to sabotage my work, cancelled customer booking in the system, and even so much as to cause physical harm to me. When I lodged a complaint, Leadership just said to work it out. After many attempts, my working it out was leaving. It was later told to me, this person had used the same tactic with the two others they hired after me, because she wanted the job but leadership didn’t want her. They finally let her go. So, in a case like this, I would not apologize for being qualified and capable to do a job I was hired to do. I would not apologize for someone else’s perceived harm, as it ultimately is their own personal issue, not mine. At least in my case.

  8. Philip

    Lots of good ideas, and of course, the article has to be short and to the point. I’m sure you could have added more, but that sure is a lot to unpack.
    I am a believer in really thinking through what I might have done on my part to apologize for and if you can’t find anything, maybe there’s nothing you can do. However, I kind of agree with some folks that that sort of apology is not really an apology at all and might sound insincere.

    Here are a few things you might want to look at yourself before approaching this person:
    1. Were they interested in the job first and then you got interested in it?
    2. Do they feel like you stole the job from them by you taking credit for things they did, or undermining them to your superiors during the process?
    3. Did they know you were applying for the job? or were you offered the position or asked to apply out of the blue and unplanned?
    4. After taking the position, have you not given them credit for their work in some fashion?

    So before even apologizing, you could ask to talk to them. If they agree, tell them that you can see that they are upset and it has affected your relationship and you’d like to understand why and if you have done anything that they perceived as wrong. Tell them that maybe there is something that is obvious to you and for which you have no idea, but if that is the case, you care enough to know and to rectify it if possible. Let them know that if they feel you have wronged them, could they please help you to understand how, so you can take responsibility for your actions. If so, then you may apologize.

    If they cannot do so, but simply cannot get over the fact that they were not promoted and there is no wrongdoing on your part, maybe you can share how you can see it is hurting them and how unhappy they are. Maybe you can give them a project to work on in order to be promoted to another position. If there is no such possibility, then ask if there is something else that is part of that decision that is making them so upset. Maybe they have financial problems and they were counting on the promotion to help fix them. Maybe they have relationship issues or other insecurities that they thought would make them feel good about themselves. Maybe they had goals and a timeline for those goals, and now the only way to reach them is to go to another company (which often is the best way to move ahead) but they don’t want to move out of their comfort zone.

    So, there could be many reasons for their behavior that have nothing to do with you. If you let them know that you still offer your friendship if they change their mind, maybe that is all you can do and maybe that is enough.

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