When was the last time you said “sorry” … to a piece of furniture? Or maybe something you had nothing to do with goes wrong and you hear yourself saying it again. If you’re like many people, you may be saying sorry more often than any leader needs to. Yes, there is a time and place for apologizing. That time and place isn’t always and everywhere.
So what’s the big deal?
If you constantly apologize when it is uncalled for, you undermine your credibility. You can even cross the line into becoming irritating to others. Instead of appearing polite and humble, you are painting an inaccurate impression of you being incipit and powerless, taking not just responsibility but blame for everything. That’s not accurate.
There are other options that serve you better.
A few years ago, I had shared a laugh-filled week vacationing with a friend. Spending 24/7 with someone allows you the chance to become very familiar with their speech habits (or maybe it’s just me who notices these patterns because communication is “my thing”?). I found that my friend was saying “sorry”, a lot.
We’d be driving somewhere and she’d mention a certain store she wanted to go to. “No problem”, I’d say, adjusting the route as we drove. “Sorry”, she said. For what? In case she inconvenienced me. I explained that she hadn’t. If she had, it was up to me to say so.
INSTEAD: Rather than apologize, you could say, “Thank you for stopping at that store. Because of that, I picked up some really cool items”.
I mentioned I was hungry because we were out shopping all day and missed the dinner hour. She said, “I’m sorry”, implying that she was the reason we were late. I explained that there was no reason to be sorry, I was a big girl and if I’d really wanted to eat, I would have. It wasn’t her fault at all. It was my own doing and I owned that responsibility of creating my own situation.
INSTEAD: In place of an apology, you could say, “Thanks for shopping all day with me even though you were hungry”.
That same day, I bought a little black dress she suggested I try on. In spite of my initial protests that I already have several LBDs, this one fit like a glove and I didn’t resist, so I bought it. The next day, she said, “Sorry I made you buy that dress”. Say what? Nope, she didn’t make me do anything. I exercised my own free will and take full ownership of my decisions. No need to be sorry, especially when she was coming from a place of love and support.
INSTEAD: You could replace that apology with a thank you and say, “Thanks for listening to my opinion about that dress you got. It looks fantastic on you”.
The result of being the recipient of seemingly endless apologies was that I felt my patience wane. Hearing her say sorry many times a day just felt over the top. Next, I thought she was soon going to apologize for breathing in case she was using too much oxygen!
Your attempt to be apologetic may backfire.
The important lesson is this: When you apologize too much, you run the risk of becoming a pest. You really have two choices:
- Stop apologizing so much when it’s really not your fault, your actions had nothing to do with the outcome; OR …
- If it really is your fault and worthy of an apology, then give it and most importantly, change your behaviour so it doesn’t happen again and thus, removes the need for apology completely.
If you apologize profusely for just about everything, not only does it erode your role as a leader, it takes energy on the part of others to pardon you and explain that no apology is necessary. It becomes tiring. Instead of having the effect you may hope for, the end result is quite the opposite — you may become irritating. This is especially true if you repeat the behaviour you apologize for, again and again, thinking that an apology will make it okay. It doesn’t. Instead of apologizing, just change your behaviour.
How about you? Are you saying “sorry” when you really don’t need to?
Research suggests that excessive apologizing falls especially to us ladies. My personal observation has been that women say “sorry” far more than men, and science now confirms this hunch to be true.
Research suggests women and men apologize differently.
A September 2011 online issue of Psychology Science features a study involving 66 subjects over a 12-day period. These people self-reported the number of times they apologized and yes, women said it more often.
The interesting point was that this study suggested that women may have a different definition of what is offensive and thus, feel compelled to apologize moreso than men. It’s interesting to note that, this study suggests a woman’s heightened ability to read between the lines of communication and pick up on tone and nuance may also result in women feeling slighted when no insult was intended at all or, was not intended to be communicated.
THE POINT: Watch out ladies — don’t look for offense when none is intended. In the absence of definitive evidence, choose to believe the more positive scenario.
In a second study referenced in an article by Christie Nicholson of Scientific American online, three separate offenses were rated by 120 subjects on a seven-point scale. Women consistently rated the three offenses as more severe than men did.
She explains, “Turns out that men are just as likely as women to apologize for a given offense, but their threshold for thinking they have committed an offense is higher”.
There is certainly a time and place for “sorry” and frankly, some people need to say it more often. However, if you find yourself on the other end of the spectrum, before you utter that “sorry” word next time, consider these points:
- You don’t need to say “sorry” when you’re not responsible;
- Instead of “sorry”, say “excuse me”;
- Instead of “sorry”, thank the other person for understanding your intent (see chart above).
You have a right to do and say what you wish, as long as you do so respectfully. No need to apologize for being yourself. Give yourself permission to apologize for mistakes you make and stop apologizing for those you don’t. And if you can’t break the habit of saying “sorry”, well then, that’s a real sorry situation that a leader will correct.
Post below and tell me, do you apologize too much or not enough?
Originally published ©2012 Marion Grobb Finkelstein, updated 2022
©2022 Marion Grobb Finkelstein (MarionSpeaks)
Marion Grobb Finkelstein
Keynote Speaker / Corporate Trainer / Author
Recipient of APEX “Award for Leadership in Service Innovation”
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