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When – and Why – Women Apologize Too Much…and How to Stop

When prophylactic apologies disempower leadership

Do you like word games? Because words matter, and never more so than in leadership and business. Never more so than for women defining new leadership styles in an environment – ready or not – that doesn’t know what to expect.

Words carry emotional messages that reveal and demonstrate power that is either resonant or lacking within ourselves. When we say, without apology or permission, “My idea is…,” and then simply present our contribution, we are standing on emotional terra firma; no apologies, and no requests for permission. Particularly for women, this is tricky.

In a world, particularly in a business world, which has been defined for hundreds of years by masculine standards, and by the top-down power structure with its built-in implications of risking retribution if you step out of any undefined line, whoever is at the top of the totem pole holds the power. At least, they hold it until we challenge the structure, stop apologizing, and start sharing with the combination of certainty and humility that is the hallmark of healthy communication.

Business has long been defined by masculine, and dominantly male, rules and regulations. For women, this has necessitated a complex reading of and response to business situations; responses that don’t reflect her real power.

How many times have you spoken up in a business meeting, and felt like you had to put on emotional or linguistic armor to do so? You may have found yourself padding your Big Idea with an apologetic introduction:

“Well, I know you may not agree with this, but…”

“This may not be the right time to share this idea, but…”

“I know that you all said you wouldn’t like an XYZ, but I hope you will allow me to share this…”

The connective word, “but”, gives away our awkwardness, whether we realize it or not.

We may feel that the use of this kind of protective wording keeps socially safe – often it does – but what it is also most devastatingly does is keep us disempowered. We invite others to see us as powerless, and we leave nothing in the environment that allows for the alternative strong choice.

Every kind of apologetic armor we wear is the equivalent of walking into the enemy camp with our hands in the air: I surrender!

You may not even be aware of times that you are doing it. But it happens every single day, and to all of us. Until we see the game that is happening, and choose – every time we can remember – to stop playing it.

Choosing not to play the game requires knowing when it is simply not necessary.

Is your apology prophylactic?

Are you apologizing because you’re afraid that your certainty, mastery and leadership will be threatening to those around you?

If so, don’t apologize. Allow them to learn that you are a professional. Allow yourself to become comfortable with the level of your knowledge and empowerment. And allow yourself to accept that you need not dumb yourself down to protect someone else.

Are you apologizing for someone else?

We women have been raised in a culture that puts us one-down. As a result, we have become preternaturally aware of power structures and where we fit within them. When we see someone else commit what we would consider a power crime – rising “above their expected station” or committing a power faux pas unapologetically – we may jump in and take over the conversation with that apology at hand! It is not our place to do so, and the other person’s lessons are not ours to take on.

In that case, resist the urge. Don’t apologize. Sit with your own awkwardness, and watch what happens in the room. Who knows? No one else may appear to be uncomfortable, in which case you have just learned something valuable about your assumptions; they may not be the whole truth.

Are you spending longer prefacing your point than you are in making it?

In other words, are you tap dancing around your power by using every word known to humankind, like this: “Well, I know this may not be exactly the right time to share this because Mr. X and Ms. Y just said this about that, and that about this…And I know I said before that I would not make a comment about this topic but here I am again! Making a comment! But, I just thought it might be worth sharing this idea…” and then you share the idea, which is 10 words long.

But by then no one is listening! Try not doing that and see what happens. Try just saying your thought – BOOM! – and see what happens around you! Do the people in the meeting listen more intently? Are there expressions of approval and focus in the faces around you? Do you get more feedback, in a positive way, than you usually do? Do you get responses, where before you got none.

Words matter because they carry emotional meaning which affects your impact.

You yourself react with strength or a wilting kind of surrender to the words you use because they carry within them the attitudes that you haven’t admitted to yourself. Or maybe you just haven’t seen them yet.

But when you do, and you choose a different behavior to try, you have just started to change the game.

Yours, and everyone else’s.

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