“I’m sorry.” “Sorry to bother you, but ...” “I’m sorry, let me take care of that.”
Stop and listen. How many times do you hear — or say — you’re sorry?
While it’s honorable to show empathy when appropriate, the phrase “I’m sorry” has become way overused. And your brain takes all of this in as it reflects your self-image.
Why we over-apologize
Saying you’re sorry when it’s not necessary is a bad habit that can undermine your authority and chip away at your self-esteem.
Executive coach and social worker Melody Wilding has studied this topic extensively and reports this habit has become so ingrained over the years that the words seem to come out automatically.
Many times, this phrase becomes a default mechanism because people don’t know what else to say. So these words become more like filler in a conversation.
Research shows those who over-apologize may be reflecting internal doubts about their capabilities. This is accelerated when buttons are pushed that trigger old patterns.
Alternatives to saying ‘sorry’
If you find yourself in the habit of over-apologizing, here are some situations that demonstrate other options.
When someone bumps into you or gets in your way.
- Instead of automatically saying, “I’m sorry,” think of saying, “excuse me.” You don’t need to apologize for taking up space. In many cases, it’s just as much the other person’s responsibility as yours.
This has happened to me at times, and if I revert to an automatic “I’m sorry,” the usual returned phrase is “You’re fine.” While that may sound soothing in the moment, and makes up for an awkward situation, what gives the other person the authority to pardon you and assess that you’re fine?
In a way, it’s like giving away your power. This is where the subtle erosion of self-esteem comes into play — even though it all seems rather innocent.
When you have a question.
- Practice speaking up in meetings without apologizing first, encourages Wilding. Get to the point quickly.
You’re not interrupting or being annoying if you have a question, so don’t assume you are.
When you’re late for a meeting.
- “Thank you for your patience. Let’s begin.” Saying “thank you” recognizes the patience of your colleagues.
It’s a subtler, yet stronger, way to acknowledge that patience. And you’re replacing feelings of shame with gratitude, which is always a better signal to reflect back to your brain and nervous system.
When you’ve taken a while to reply to an email.
- Thanking someone at the beginning of an email for helpful information sets a better tone than profusely apologizing right off the bat. When this happens with me, I still acknowledge the delay in responding somewhere in the email. While I don’t over explain or attempt to justify, I just think it’s respectful.
When someone makes an unreasonable request for your time.
- It’s good to have stock phrases on hand when you’re blindsided by an unreasonable request. You won’t fall into a trap, over-commit and regret it later.
“That won’t work for me right now” is one of my favorite, go-to phrases. It’s objective, neutral and doesn’t cast judgment on the person’s project. It just clearly states you’re not available.
Learning to say ‘no’
Stating your limits and being clear about expectations doesn’t make you difficult. It’s actually a sign of leadership, observes Wilding.
You may be worried that saying “no” will cause people to get upset or dislike you. The reality is that others will likely respect your honesty.
When ‘sorry’ is appropriate
A well-placed apology can be very powerful. Others respect you when you take responsibility.
What’s important is to discern the difference between a scenario that requires an apology and everyday situations like those described above.
If saying “I’m sorry” has become a habit for you, take a look at how you may be relying on apologies as a verbal crutch. With practice, you can find clearer ways to express what you truly mean and become much more confident in your communication.
On a lighter note, I’ll risk a throwback quote from the old movie, “Love Story,” in which Ali MacGraw instructs Ryan O’Neal that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”