Ever notice how many times you preface a statement, often one that is heartfelt and meaningful, with apologetic words like “I’m sorry,” “this sounds silly,” “I might be crazy,” or “you are going to think I’m stupid, but.” Whether you are trying to defuse a tense situation, deliver bad news or avoid being disliked, it can be easy to lead with an apologetic comment. However, engaging in apology-speak when it is not warranted diminishes the value of your ideas, accomplishments and, well, yourself.
It’s no surprise that a study from the University of Waterloo in Canada found that women apologize more frequently than men; their hypothesis is that women tend to have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior. As noted in this NBC News article, Maja Jovanovic, Ph.D., sociology professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada and author of “Hey Ladies, Stop Apologizing and Other Career Mistakes Women Make,” attributes a woman’s tendency to apologize to being “socialized into a passive mindset” and “people pleasing behavior” from an early age. “Apologies have become our de-facto way of communicating, a way of filling the silence and keeping the peace when interacting with others,” she says in this story.
I spent the first 46-years of my life being in a constant state of apology. It was completely subconscious, prompted by a perceived need to dim my inner light in order be more palatable and less intimidating to others. I apologized for winning lots of speaking trophies as student and to the men in my life who felt diminished every time I got promoted at work or won an industry award. After getting healthy by losing 50 pounds nearly 25 years ago, I apologized for trying to feel my best to others who wanted the same results without putting the work in.
The low point was 2009, when the Great Recession killed my PR firm like so many other small businesses. Forced to assume more than $80,000 in business debt and layoff good employees, I felt like a complete failure – and apologized for still existing when so many other businesses went under. Then between 2013-2014, four major developments took place – I married the love of my life, got sick with Crohn’s Disease, became a certified executive coach and decided to go back into corporate America.
That strange cocktail of intense happiness, fear about my health, transition into a more fulfilling career path and tremendous personal growth changed how I looked at things. I began celebrating accomplishments, reframed myself as a survivor and focused on my well-being as the top priority. All of which made apology-speak for no good reason feel self-defeating and downright stupid.
Sometimes I can feel the default urge to apologize because coming out of the gate with strength, purpose and belief can be intimidating to others. But most of the time, apologies only come out of my mouth if I’ve done something wrong – which has helped me overcome self-limiting beliefs and gain greater confidence. If you are ready to build more influence and well-being, here are four steps to break the cycle of unnecessary apology-speak:
Determine if an apology is merited. Consider if you have actually done something wrong and if so, apologize for that transgression. But if those statements are more about filling conversational dead space or diminishing your accomplishments, don’t slip into the apology-speak habit.
Pay attention. Start noticing how often you engage in unwarranted apology-speak, perhaps marking each instance down on a smart phone or notepad. Tally up the number after a week and you may be surprised by the frequency of this behavior. Notice what circumstances prompted each instance and identify patterns, like conversations with co-workers, sales presentations, team meetings or more. Understanding these catalysts can help you plan to curb apology-speak in advance.
Reframe your words. Think about what you are really trying to communicate. Instead of leading with “I’m sorry,” this article from FastCompany.com details five tricks to try like saying “thank you” or embracing silence instead. The author also suggests using a Chrome plug-in called Just Not Sorry to scan written communication for using excessive apologetic language.
Own your accomplishments. Instead of hiding your light, practice fully embracing the milestones, wins and accomplishments you generated through grit and talent. Start simple, by listing one thing each day before starting work that makes you proud. With that as your pillar of strength, celebrate what you have done and let that burst of positivity lift up others around you too.
When was the last time you engaged in apology-speak when there was nothing to apologize for?