I was involved in a very minor email misunderstanding with someone I wanted to collaborate with after having just met him. In a nutshell, the first couple of email exchanges left me feeling ignored, and him misunderstood. Since I've been working with Marshall Rosenberg's NVC conflict resolution model for many months now, I used NVC language in working out this conflict of mutually hurt feelings. (Read the first chapter of Marshall's book here.)
I think I did a pretty good job of being respectful. Possibly not. I received a very warm response from the other party, several paragraphs of real communication that I valued. But the first sentence set a tone that undercut the warmth. He said "I'm sorry if I somehow offended you."
Here's the whole-hearted part: Friends, if you apologize for somehow offending someone, what you're telling them is that you're willing to apologize but you think they're too sensitive.
You won't get very far as a leader with that approach, because whether the reader/listener realizes it or not, the distance is evident, and empathy is not happening. Now leave out the somehow: "I'm sorry if I offended you." Try them both on, go deep, and then see if you think there's no difference!
This kind of fine distinction is important when you're leading a high-stakes, complex project or for some other reason need to rely on the complete inspired engagement of your colleagues. A few somehows every day will make the difference between "Yeah, babe!" and "Darn!", and you can see where that will take you.
You want "Yeah, babe!" whenever possible. Of course communicating with so much sensitivity can be a challenge, for me as much as anyone. To help myself learn, I subscribe to the behavior modification school of character development, also known as "fake it 'til you make it." My version goes like this: I become aware and that permits me to notice. Upon noticing, I change my behavior. My actions and speech are connected to my heart, so my changed behavior influences my heart directly. And it influences my head indirectly because it's reinforced by the positive results I experience as you respond to my more empathetic behavior. Pretty soon I really am sorry I offended you, and you can tell.
What does this sensitivity get me? It gets me your trust and loyalty, your willingness to be honest and take chances, and your concern for my needs (and by extension the needs of the project or organization). Those characteristics open you and me and our colleagues up to the real creativity that makes the right things happen.
So next time you hear a somehow – try to be kind. And next time you find yourself speaking one – kindly notice. The rest will take care of itself.