I’m Sorry It Didn’t Work Out
Here’s a tip you can learn from a client of mine without going through his pain.
Let’s call him “Mike”.
Mike had a deal go sour and it ended up in arbitration. They came up with a settlement that they both signed but the other guy wasn’t keeping up his side.
Mike and the other guy had been old friends.
Their kids went to school together and their wives were on the same charities.
So they saw each other regularly at charity events and school functions. Mike was pretty ticked off, and wanted to blast his former friend at one of these gatherings.
And that reminded me of an experience I had back when I was running a manufacturing plant. Well, actually it was a hassle but now that I look back on it I can see it as a useful lesson.
And maybe it’ll be useful to you also.
It can show you a way to deal with difficult people, and a way not to.
Back to the time when I ran a small high tech company.
A man contacted us and said he had a new idea for a product that we might be interested in making. He wanted to meet me to discuss it.
I agreed to the meeting.
Since we would be discussing his idea and perhaps some of our trade secrets in manufacturing, I sent him our standard non-disclosure agreement.
This agreement allows two people to share secrets, but prevents either side from using them apart from the other party. It’s to stop one side from “going around” the other.
He refused our form and sent us his form instead.
Our attorneys took a look at his form and wouldn’t let me sign it.
They warned me that it contained so many “bear traps” and setups for penalty that it would be dangerous to even talk with this guy if I signed his form.
I wrote to him explaining this. I said that I would be happy to meet with him under reasonable protections, but that his form would penalize me even for using information after the meeting that was common knowledge.
So we didn’t have the meeting. I wished him well and forgot about him.
Later at a trade show, while I was discussing our products with a customer, this guy showed up and made a nuisance of himself. He claimed — loudly — that we tried to rip him off for his idea.
I got hot under the collar, told him in front of my customer that he was “full of it,” and sent him away.
Although I was in the right, my hot reaction chilled my customer. It probably cost me much of the business I might have done with this guy.
I warned my client Mike about my experience.
I told Mike that even though the guy told lies about me at that trade show, my hot-tempered response when I blasted him back had turned off the customer who witnessed my outburst and it had probably damaged a profitable relationship.
What I wished I had said at that trade show was this:
“Hey, I’m sorry you’re disappointed that we didn’t do business – so am I. My lawyers wouldn’t let me sign the agreement that you sent me, and you didn’t want to sign the more conventional agreement that we sent you. So we didn’t meet and no one got hurt. I know that you and I had a disagreement and I apologize for my part in it. I respect you, and would like it if we can part as friends so maybe we’ll get a chance to work together in the future.”
That would have worked out a lot better than my blast did.
And the customer that I had been talking to might have thought, “Wow, Tom’s a reasonable guy even when there’s a disagreement. Sounds like I could work with him.”
In any event, I’ve learned that a sincere “I’m sorry things didn’t work out” isn’t the same as taking the blame for something. It shows respect for the other person’s discomfort and it’s not focused on conflict or making someone wrong.
So I told Mike this story from my own past and he did what I wished I had done.
The next time Mike saw his old friend he took this attitude. He told him that he was sorry they were in disagreement. He said he would like to work things out to both of their satisfaction, since they had been friends and were in the same community.
Mike concluded with, “Just because we can’t do business together doesn’t mean we can’t be good friends and neighbors, does it?”
A friend of mine who was at the charity lunch where this took place told me what happened next.
“The other guy’s face got red,” he told me. “He shook Mike’s hand and thanked him for his courtesy, and said that his wife and Mike’s wife had wanted them to get together before this, and that now he would do so gladly.”
“It’s funny,” my friend said to me. “Mike was the one who apologized, but he seemed to come out of it as the winner to those of us who saw it.”
So consider expressing your regrets sometimes, NOT because you were at fault, but just to recognize that the other party may have some regrets also.
By being honest about your regrets you may open up space for another relationship, if not with that person then perhaps with someone else who sees how generous you can be.
Here’s the big lesson. There are three phrases that only confident people will use freely.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out”
Consider where these expressions of respect for others would be appropriate for you. They soften relationships.