Customer Service Tip #1 – Get Over Yourself and Use This Phrase!

upset man on the phone

The combination of the pandemic and our current economic climate has definitely increased stress levels. For many businesses, this means an increase in emotional conversations with customers. My webinars on the skills for managing and de-escalating big emotions on the phone, by email and in person, are in greater demand now than ever before.

Throughout my 16 years of supporting clients with these skills, I’ve always run into pushback on one essential element. Until recently, I’ve listened carefully to the individuals who’ve disagreed with me. I’ve nodded and said something like, “This is my best advice. If what you are doing is working, then that’s great.”

But in December 2021 two things happened in succession that have me taking a firm stand. There is one phrase that must be part of any de-escalation process. Without it, especially today, you run the risk of increasing conversations that are upsetting for everyone and even escalate to abuse.

What’s this one phrase? Why do some people refuse to use it? And why am I now saying, “Get over yourself!”?

In mid-December 2021 I delivered a webinar to a group of professionals that often find themselves the recipients of rude, patronizing and angry conversations – by email, phone and in person. Any job that includes this type of communication becomes frustrating and exhausting, limiting everyone’s enjoyment of their work as well as their productivity. I’m passionate about providing as many tools and skills as possible to make these situations easier for everyone.

One of the important aspects of dealing with big emotions is knowing that when someone is emotional … they can’t hear. This applies to all of us. Our emotions diminish our ability to listen and understand. This is why, when we interrupt someone expressing themselves in an emotional way, they get more emotional. They can’t take in what we are saying, no matter how valuable. All they experience is the interruption – a sign that we aren’t listening, don’t care and think them foolish.

In order to communicate, to begin the de-escalation process, we have to decrease their emotional temperature.

Think of reducing the heat on a stove so a pot goes from a fast boil to a more reasonable simmer.

We accomplish this by saying the most powerful words in the English language … “I’m sorry.” And this, of course, is where I get the pushback. In fact, one of the participants in my December webinar stated very clearly, “I will never say I’m sorry.”

Why do people have such a strong reaction to this vital step of de-escalating big emotions? Because they interpret the words “I’m sorry” as accepting blame and taking responsibility for something they haven’t done.

While the phrase can be used as part of taking responsibility for something, that’s not what it means.

Death taught me this lesson. Soon after that December webinar, on Christmas day, a friend passed away. It was announced on social media by her partner. Every response, every comment, began with the words, “I’m sorry.” Were these people accepting blame or taking responsibility for my friend’s death? No, of course not. What they were saying is I hear you, I’m listening, I’m with you, I care.

Not every emotional conversation can be easily de-escalated. But in the majority of circumstances, the words “I’m sorry” begin the process of moving to a reasonable conversation. They should be followed by an open-ended question such as “What do you think of my sharing with you how I can help?” or “What are you hoping will happen next?” The open-ended question requires the individual to think, and this moves them towards logic, away from emotion. When any of us moves towards logic, our ability to listen improves.

When you find yourself on the other end of an emotionally charged conversation, set your ego aside. Let the other person know you care, that you are listening, that you want to help – by saying, “I’m sorry.” You’ll be pleased with the results.


14 thoughts on “Customer Service Tip #1 – Get Over Yourself and Use This Phrase!”

  1. I love this! Absolutely- get over yourself and say “I’m sorry”
    An ounce of empathy and compassion go a long way in building customer relations and also client trust in a company or organization

    • Thanks, Sara. Empathy and compassion are vital to excellence in customer service. And I appreciate how you have connected this to building and maintaining trust.

    • Thanks, Penny. It was an insight for me as well. Wish I’d made the connection sooner. It was the synchronicity of the December webinar and my friend dying that made the true meaning of “sorry” click together for me. Life is good and I hope it is with you as well.

  2. “I’m sorry” is very powerful in re-engaging someone who has gotten very emotional. Some people are escalators. They use it as a tactic to get what they want. No matter what you say, they keep pushing, hoping you’ll give them what they want to get rid of them. I worked with a salesperson who operated this way. He’d come into my office looking to get me to put his project ahead of others or drop what I was working on to do something for him. He’d immediately escalate into an angry tirade, hoping to make me do his bidding just to get rid of hm. I found a way to defuse him quickly. “I’m sorry, Joe. I can’t help you if you’re yelling at me and not listening to anything I say. Please leave so we can both calm down. Come back then and we’ll address your problem.” And then I’d totally disengage with him. The first time I said this it stopped him in his tracks. He went from 60 to a full stop. He realized he wasn’t going to get his way and would either have to go away and come back or stop and have a reasonable conversation. He never tried the anger tactic again. Unfortunately, we really can’t tell a customer to go away and call back later. A way to use this tactic might be to say, “I’m sorry. I want to help. I understand you’re upset. Let’s take a break and catch our breaths, so you can tell me your problem, and I can share how I can help you fix it.” With an escalator, I sometimes have to repeat this a couple of times until they realize their tactic isn’t going to work. Have you ever tried this approach to regain control of the conversation, basically implying, “I’m disengaging (not playing your game) until you calm down, so we can talk?”

    • Peter! This is such a great story and wonderful information to share with everyone. I’ve never combined the “I’m sorry” with the “Let’s start again” or “Let’s pick this up later” … but it is brilliant. Thanks so much for taking the time to write and for sharing your personal experience. There are more and more clients that share with me stories of being “bullied” by clients and customers. I’m now going to add this idea to everyone’s skill set … including my own.

      • LOVE THIS!!! I have tried, “I’m sorry. Can we start again, so I get all the details right, and I can help find the best solution.” Because I was getting emotional as well, and was no longer listening to understand.

        • This is such a lovely post, Bernice. What I deeply appreciate is your awareness that you were no longer listening to understand. Recognizing this “in the moment” is inspirational and definitely how we can all improve our communication skills. Thank you!

  3. I had a meeting scheduled with 2 political leaders to discuss some very personal and tragic events related to our health care system. When I walked into the meeting one of them asked if they could begin, and did so with an apology to myself and my family for the challenges that had resulted in the necessity of this meeting. I am an advocate, and was there to advocate for change. It 100% changed the trajectory of that meeting. I was angry walking in, and validated walking out. We didn’t fix all the worlds problems, or the problems of the health care system of the time, but we did communicate, and learn from each other.

    • Bernice … this is a powerful story. It brought tears to my eyes when I first read it early this morning. It is a perfect example of humility, awareness, compassion and how all of us can “change the trajectory” to create powerful conversations, opportunities for learning and a path towards working together for positive change. Thank you!

  4. So simple. So pure. Yet so powerful. I honestly believe saying ‘I’m sorry’ to another person is the gateway of empathy in its purest form. Thank you Mary Jane for articulating this important message in the beautiful way you do.

    • Thank you, Nicole. This phrase is very powerful: “…the gateway of empathy in its purest form”. Appreciate that you’ve added this amazing writing to this post.


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