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Recovering From an Outburst

Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently had an argument with someone at work because I misunderstood what she was saying to me and I said some things in return that I regret. I took your course but the skills went away from me when my emotions kicked in. Now, even though we have met with the clinical coordinator and everything seems to be ironed out, she is very cool toward me. I have apologized and even sent her a card, but I feel I truly blew it and now I’m unsure we’ll ever get back to where we were. Do you have any suggestions about what I can do to help bridge the gap?

Still Embarrassed

Dear Still Embarrassed,

We all make mistakes in our communication with others. The wise among us recognize the error and apologize to the offended person. You, having said things you regret, have taken these steps. You even went the extra mile and sent a card to apologize. Well done.

These actions are all within our control. What are not in our control are the other person’s feelings and response. Others get to decide how they’ll respond to your efforts to set things right. Sometimes they’ll forgive you and move on. Sometimes they decide to hold a grudge. Sometimes they feel hurt and may discount your apology as insincere, or they take it as sincere but steel themselves against you, wondering when it will happen again.

I wonder if the latter is the case with your coworker. Maybe she sees your efforts to be kind and respectful, but is looking, waiting, and wondering when you will lash out again.

In cases like this, consider a metaphor. Your efforts to be respectful and treat your coworker well are like pebbles. Water is like distrust or unease. You drop pebbles into the water hoping they will pile up, build mass, and rise above the water so that your respect and good intentions become the focus and substance of your relationship instead of the distrust. However, your pebbles seem to sink out of sight, making no appreciable difference. The key to changing this situation is to create a new context for your relationship, a way to capture the pebbles and make them count.

Let me share an illustration. As I finished a Crucial Conversations workshop, a middle-aged man approached me. He thanked me for the workshop and said he was the single parent of three teenagers. He had tried to apply the things I had advocated with his children, by consciously and consistently attempting to build trust and respect with them over the last year—but, it wasn’t working. They still distrusted him. He said they were “gun-shy” of him.

I asked him if something specific had happened a year ago. He became emotional and explained that he had come home drunk and “slapped his kids around.” He said that when he woke the next morning and realized what he had done, he was mortified and wanted to die. He vowed to stop drinking and has not touched alcohol since. Over the last year, he has been on his best behavior with his children, not slipping once, but they are still emotionally distant.

I asked him what had happened between him and his children the morning after the hurtful incident. He explained that he sat down with his children and told them how sorry he was for hurting them and asked for their forgiveness. Nothing else was said and every kindness he has offered since, although appreciated, was no more than a pebble sinking in the pond.

For this father, I believe his heart is right and his children are aware of his kindnesses toward them, but they seem to be on guard and wary. Rather than seeing his awful behavior as a once-in-a-life-time mistake, they may fear they got a glimpse into their Father’s real feelings and that he may erupt again at any time.

Picture how the situation would have been different if the morning after the incident, the father had gathered his children and given a heart-felt apology, asked for their forgiveness, then said, “I want you to know as of this moment, I will never drink alcohol again. Never. And I will never raise my hand against you. I will never strike you or hit you. I love you and you can count on my promise.”

Whether or not the children believed him at that moment, he would have created a context for their relationship, a clear set of expectations they could use to hold him accountable. From that moment forward, every sober day would be evidence that Dad was keeping his word. The context Dad created was like a jar of water. Every time Dad kept his word it was like putting a pebble in the jar. Instead of sinking away, it’s captured in the jar and displaces some of the water. Over time, the jar fills with respect and good intentions and empties of distrust and unease.

Even now, it’s not too late for this Father to create a new context for his relationships. This is done by setting clear expectations going forward, and informing his kids of what they can expect from him. Dad could meet with his children, reference what happened a year ago, detail the things he has done to make sure it never happened again—including his having given up alcohol. He could then create clear expectations going forward. “I will never drink again. I will never hit you. If I’m angry, I’ll do what I did during this past year: I’ll talk it through with you. I love you and will keep my promise to you.” If he sets these expectations, even though it’s a year late, the children will not only start putting pebbles in the jar, they may even retrieve some from their memories, and the jar will be filled quickly and their trust restored.

Now, your offense was nowhere near the severity of the Dad in this story; however, the principle still applies. I would encourage you to build a context for your relationship with your coworker. Sit down with her and begin by stating the facts: “Two weeks ago, I yelled at you and called you a ‘yellow-bellied sap-sucker'” (or whatever you really said). “I also apologized to you and sent you a card asking for your forgiveness.”

Having stated the facts, express what you really want for the relationship: “I hope we can have a professional, respectful, warm relationship going forward.”

Next, create the accountability. “In the future, you can expect that I will work hard at being respectful and professional.” You don’t need to obtain a commitment in kind from her; you just need to keep your commitment. In this way, you’ve given her the jar, and maybe because of the way you’ve handled it, she’s already put several pebbles in.

I wish you the very best in your efforts to build good, strong, effective relationships.

Ron

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Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Ron has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the American Society of Training and Development and the Society for Human Resource Management. Ron’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

12 thoughts on “Recovering From an Outburst”

  1. It might also be worth exploring the apology – sometimes we aplogize for what we did but haven’t acknowledged the impact it had on the other person. ‘I am sorry i called you a yellow belly sap-sucker, that was rude and unprofessional” isn’t the same message as ‘i a sorry i called you a yellow belly sap-sucker, that was disrespectful and truly doesn’t reflect how i feel about you. i value your skills and our relationship, and that childish temper outburst does not represent how important you are to me.” In some cases the other person needs to express how the event felt (the impact it had on them) in order to create space to hear your apology.

  2. Right off the bat, the offender seeks to make himself feel better, by asking HER to forgive HIM. In my opinion, that is a very self serving approach. Your approach, ‘explore the apology’, indeed makes him accountable instead of expecting her to forgive and forget what happened!

  3. Ron,
    Thank you for your answer. As a step-parent I am constantly looking for ways to improve my relationships with my children and family. I have a 24 year old who holds me accountable for all of the mistakes that his parents made before their divorce and since my marriage to his father. This advice you gave will help me redefine the boundaries of my relationships with all of my children and hopefully soon we will have peace at home. I am grateful for the chance to gain knowledge that I need to make my relationships stronger. Thank you for your input!

  4. Good answer, I will apply it. I am prone to outbursts, but fear thankfully keeps from ever doing it at work. However, I am very prone with my kids and spouse. If I make a promise to my kids and then I fail, what the heck do you do then? I am really working hard at controlling these outbursts and I go for long periods until things build up. What then?

  5. I would be extremely surprised if the drunk dad actually only abused his children ONCE. While I think reframing the discussion is a good idea, I think he has a whole lot more than that one incident to answer for. Some family therapy would be a good idea here.

  6. @joebob
    How about spending some quality time with a therapist to find our why you are are getting so angry, Joebob? In many men, it is actually an expression of untreated depression.

    My father would have outbursts, and until the day he died I had a twinge of fear whenever we would be alone together. I never knew if I would be spending time with Daddy or a very irritable “father” who needed to be left alone.

    I also think some family therapy is in order unless you want your kids and spouse to be afraid of you for the rest of their lives.

  7. I always like to use analogies in my Crucial Conversations. Yours was excellent and plan to expand on it. As always, I give credit where credit is due. Thnaks for this one.

  8. @Becky Bennett
    Becky,
    You make an insightful point. Your suggested opening is an improvement to the one I made. After the initial exchange would be a good time to explore their path or ask questions to see how they see things and better understand how your outburst affected them. Now is the time to apologize more specifically if needed and better determine where the relationship should go.

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