Running until you throw up, that’s what happens when you are late to practice. From age 8 to 21 my occasional tardiness was seen as an affront to coaches and a slap in the face to teammates. There is only one word an angry coach wants to hear: sorry.
When you make an error, stay out too late, gain weight, or don’t make a sprint time, there are no other words except: sorry.
If you step out of line, speak up, defend, or have an original idea: sorry.
Maybe you lost the game or race and that loss somehow “embarrassed everyone” because now you are all “losers.”
Sorry is the default setting for athletes to coaches. It is the safest way to respond to rhetorical questions and unrealistic demands of perfection. The very nature of sorry implies you are right and I am wrong…wrong and perhaps even wasteful in your right eyes.
This emphasis on timeliness stuck with me and (despite minor moments of intense anxiety) served me well into adulthood. Approximately 98% of the time I am early and the rest of the time I am on time. Yet despite these impressive stats just a few months ago I found myself in a precarious position, I was going to be late.
Dread and foreboding quickly overtook me. Wanting to make a good impression I stuck to the script, one I had refined 25 years ago, “I am so sorry, oh my goodness. I apologize for being late.” I said extending my hand sheepishly.
Kindly he dismissed my apology with a subtle hand wave and the appointment began. As we departed my script triggered again, “Thank you so much for meeting with me today. Again I am so sorry for being late.”
Then he said something that changed my script forever, “I have a practice of only saying sorry once and meaning it.”
I shook my head allowing it to sink in.
“No one cares if you are sorry or even why you are late. Next time just say ‘thank you’ for waiting.”
It was a hard truth to swallow.
As I walked back to my car I began to think of all of the times I had said sorry in my life. It seemed endless. Over the next week I noted who was saying sorry. At a board meeting a brilliant attorney started every sentence with, “I’m sorry but…” her body shrinking away from the table apologetically. A girlfriend began a text with, “I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it but I have blah blah blah…” I even saw it in heated political debates on TV “I’m sorry but I disagree.” All this sorriness got me thinking: are we really sorry?
Sorry: Feeling distress, especially through sympathy with someone else’s misfortune.
Is it truly a misfortune to another if you are late or have an opinion? Does what you just did or said require sympathy for the other person?
Certainly there are times that it is completely appropriate and even necessary to apologize but breathing air is not one of them. On the list of deplorable “s” words, outside of sure, sorry is one of the top ranking offenders. Perhaps sorry is not even for the other person but for us? It makes us feel better that we feel bad, like a gold star that says, “look at me, I care about your time…but not enough to be on time.”
If falling into the sorry trap sounds familiar, here are some viable alternatives:
“Thank you for your patience.”
“Bummed I will not be able to make it this evening. Please do keep me in mind for next time.” With no further explanation. What difference does it make?
“Excuse me” or “Pardon me” when needing to pass someone.
“I appreciate that you told me how you feel. That was not my intention.”
Outside of a genuine mission critical apology there is one time that sorry is the best word to use. FBI Hostage negotiator Chris Voss explains the power of I’m sorry while “Mirroring” in his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Mirroring, as he describes is, “a phenomenon and now technique that follows a very basic and profound biological principle, we fear what is different and are drawn to what is similar…mirroring then when practiced consciously is the art of insinuating similarity.” For the FBI, mirroring is when you repeat the last three words or most critical three words of what someone has just said. “It is the closet thing you can get to a Jedi mind trick, simple and yet uncannily effective.”
When negotiating, one way to get exactly what you want is to say “I’m sorry” and then repeat the last three words someone just said to you. In doing this they are forced to rephrase and perhaps rethink what they have just said. By calmly starting the sentence with I’m sorry it disarms. The example he uses is a ruthless boss who is a poor communicator:
“Let’s make two copies of all the paperwork.”
Assistant: “I’m sorry…two copies?” She mirrored in response in a calm inquisitive tone.
“Yes one for us and one for the customer.”
Assistant: “I’m sorry so you are saying that the customer is asking for a copy and we need one for internal use?”
“Actually I’ll check with the client.”
This assistant was able to avoid a week’s worth of work by leading with “I’m sorry” in her mirroring tactic.
Sorry is best when used genuinely or intentionally or not at all. Gut check and do an audit to see if you too are overusing this word. When sorry plays on an endless loop inside of our head our worth begins to erode until the space we take up no longer belongs to us. By making a point to quit excessively apologizing I’ve been able to own my life and my random tardiness. The next time you feel the “s word” slipping out consider thinking: sorry I’m not sorry.
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Jennifer Magley is a former Professional Athlete, High Performance Coach, NCAA Division I Head Coach, Entrepreneur, Activist, Single Mother, and Author. She has received national media coverage most notably by USA Today, CNN, ESPN, and Heart & Soul Magazine. Magley is the author of Division I a novel and is an in-demand inspirational speaker.