“I’m Sorry” is Not a Mantra
“Oh, I’m sooooo sorry!”
Ouch! Does that sound like you? Do you have a habit of automatically apologizing — for anything and everything? It’s a common habit among many women (and some men). And I’m sorry to tell you this, but that habit has got to go!
Some of us learned to apologize as kids. Especially if we grew up in the South, like me. My parents were always prompting me to say, “I’m sorry.”
Sometimes I would just look at them and think, “Sorry for what? What did I do?” But that didn’t seem to be the point. We were told to say “I’m sorry,” and that was that.
Even if that wasn’t your experience, you might have learned to say “I’m sorry” as a survival tactic for sticky situations. Or maybe you just picked up the habit somewhere along the way, for no particular reason at all.
Fast forward to today’s workplace, where we are still apologizing way too often. This habit devalues us. It chips away at our self-confidence. It erodes our credibility with colleagues. It plays against us. And it can really get in the way when we’re negotiating. In fact, it hinders us when we need to be assertive.
If you’re saying sorry too often, and without good reason, you’re not being your best self. And by the way, if you’re thinking that saying sorry makes you a “nice” person, think again! One thing has nothing to do with the other.
Let’s take a look at three Power Challenges to help you drop this habit!
Power Challenge 1: Notice All Your “Sorry’s”
The very first thing to do is become more self-aware. On any given day, how often do you say “I’m sorry” or something similar? Do you say it more in some situations than others? With some people more than others?
For example, do you say you’re sorry when stepping past someone on an elevator? How about when you don’t know the answer to a question — even when you weren’t the right person to ask?
Do you say you’re sorry when you’re the last person to enter a meeting — even though you’re on time? Or when you’re using the microwave in the breakroom at work, and someone is standing nearby, quietly waiting their turn?
It might be easy to answer these questions in your head. But I encourage you to make the effort to actually observe yourself in action. Don’t assume you already know the full extent of your habit.
“Reflective thinking turns experience into insight.” — John C. Maxwell
Here’s why it pays to become self-aware. For one thing, you probably say you’re sorry much more often than you think! And, if you truly want to break your habit, the key is to catch yourself in the moment that it happens.
Related: Break Those Bad Habits!
So, before you try to change anything, start with simply observing yourself. Give it seven days (or more), so you’re observing yourself during work and personal time.
Keep a little record of what you observe. An easy way to do that is make a brief note in your phone. A record will help you discover your patterns. And that will help you pinpoint your best opportunities for change.
And, here’s a bonus tip for raising even more awareness.
Take another week to observe other people’s apology habits. What does it feel like to be around people who say sorry when they didn’t do anything wrong? What is your impression of their confidence, professionalism and effectiveness?
And by the way … do you feel they are nicer people because they frequently say sorry? (You already know my answer on that!)
No matter what you discover in your observations, be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up for having a habit won’t help you change it. And self-criticism does not come from the best version of yourself! So, champion yourself for your efforts. You’re doing a good thing!
Power Challenge 2: Apologize When Appropriate
You knocked someone over at the grocery story. You missed a deadline at work. You completely forgot to recognize a friend’s birthday. For heaven’s sake, say you’re sorry! Own your mistakes and make sincere apologies.
As you can see, I’m not encouraging you to weasel out when things go wrong. Don’t be scared to apologize when warranted — for mistakes big or small. You will gain respect and appreciation for taking full accountability when appropriate.
A sincere apology is much more than simply saying “I’m sorry.” It includes fully acknowledging your role as well as the negative impacts on other people. I recommend taking some time to think it through so you can be as effective as possible.
“A meaningful apology is one that communicates three R’s: regret, responsibility and remedy.” _ Beverley Engle
The next time you find yourself saying a quick “sorry,” stop and reflect. Did you make a mistake that calls for a complete apology? If so, own it and make a full apology. Is this a situation that doe not warrant an apology at all? Read on for your next move!
Power Challenge 3: Change Your Language
You’ve observed yourself a bit. You’ve reflected on what’s yours to own and what’s not. Now you want to stop saying sorry when it’s not needed. But you feel awkward. Maybe a bit tongue-tied! What should you say instead?
It’s time to learn to get your point across without using those two words, “I’m sorry.” This will take some practice. You may feel slow and uncomfortable while learning.
But it’s worth it. You’ll feel more confident in yourself and project more confidence to others. So, let’s get creative, and see what you can say instead of “Sorry!” Here are some examples.
Scenario 1: A friend is talking but you need to leave.
Old: I’m sorry, I have to go.
New: It’s been great chatting with you. I need to head out now. See you tomorrow!
Scenario 2: A friend invited you to an event.
Old: I’m sorry, I can’t go (after being invited to an event).
New: I won’t be there this time, but maybe next time. Enjoy yourself!
Scenario 3: A colleague asks you for a report or an answer to a question. You don’t have it because these topics are not part of your work scope. You’re the wrong person to ask.
Old: I’m sorry, I don’t have that (file, report, item, answer, etc.)
New: I’d love to help, but I don’t have that information. (You can also point them to someone who might have what they want.)
Notice a couple of things in these examples of “new” language.
One, you’re fully owning your preferences, needs and actions. You’re not making an excuse. You’re not deflecting or sending a mixed message.
Two, you’re not taking ownership or responsibility for the other person’s preferences, needs or problem. You may choose to offer whatever you can or empathize. But you don’t put yourself in the position of apologizing just because they aren’t getting what they might want.
“Power is when what you think, say and do align.” – Richie Norton
You’ll need to put some thought into how to change your language. A great place to start is when you are writing an email or text. There, you have time to think and edit before you send.
Also, set aside some time for private practice. This way you won’t be under a time pressure with someone standing in front of you, waiting for you to say something!
Here’s how to do that. Use your record of your self-observation from Power Challenge 1. Find a situation that happens over and over, where you apologize unnecessarily. Then take time to think through some alternative language.
To do this, you can write out an exercise just like you see above. Jot down the scenario and your “old” response (your apology). Then brainstorm and try out alternative responses. The one you like best can be your “new” response. If this process is hard for you, ask a trusted friend to help.
You Can Still be Nice
For a while, you may feel like you’re not being a nice person. But stop for a moment and think about what it means to be nice. It could mean being friendly, considerate, compassionate, empathetic or caring. It can also mean supporting and helping others.
You can still do and be all of those things. But you’ll do so when the situation truly calls for it. When you have the right resources. When you’ve been thoughtful about your needs and preferences.
The best version of yourself is discerning. Mistakes require apologies. But you just being you? Don’t ever be sorry for that!
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