“Sorry, could you just look at this?”
“Sorry to bother you but…”
“I’m sorry, let me move that.”
Apologies, when warranted, are a sign of empathy in the workplace. But over-apologizing— or excessively saying sorry when you don’t need to — is a bad habit that can undermine your authority, and more importantly, hurt your self-esteem.
Recently, there’s been a great deal of talk and controversy about women apologizing too often in the workplace. Research shows that women do tend to say sorry more than men, which is partially the result of socialization. While young girls are raised to be polite, deferential, and studious, young boys are encouraged to be bold and more confident. As adults, women perceive themselves as making more mistakes than men, and therefore, having more to be sorry for.
Many of the women I work with as an executive coach dislike their tendency to be over-apologetic. While they rightfully bristle at the thought of their language being policed, these women nevertheless realize that their habit of saying sorry too much stems from a lack of confidence. They recognize that excessive apologizing may reflect internal doubts they hold about their own capabilities.
Oftentimes, they tell me that they can’t help but over-apologize. The habit has become so ingrained over the years that the words seem to come out automatically, mostly because they don’t know what else to say. These words act more like filler than anything else.
If this sounds like you and you find yourself falling into the habit of over-apologizing, here are four things that are better to say than “I’m sorry”:
1. When someone bumps into you, or they’re in your way
When someone bumps into you, saying “excuse me” or “pardon me” is more appropriate than saying sorry. Don’t apologize for taking up space.
2. When you have a question
Practice speaking up in meetings without apologizing first. Women especially often preface their ideas with qualifiers. You’re not interrupting or being annoying if you have a question, so don’t assume you are.
3. When you’re late for a meeting, or to reply to an email
These two words are often more powerful than an apology. Try replacing feelings of shame with gratitude. Saying “Thank you, let’s begin.” is a stronger way to acknowledge that your colleagues waited for you, for example. Emailing someone back to thank them for their helpful reminder or patience also feels much better than profusely apologizing for not getting back to them sooner.
4. When someone makes an unreasonable request for your time
Instead, say, “No, I’m not able to do that.” If people makeunreasonable requests for your time, it’s wise to learn how to push back. Clearly stating your limits and being clear about expectations doesn’t make you difficult; it’s a sign of leadership. You may be worried about saying “no” because you fear people will dislike you or get upset. Typically, the opposite is true. People will respect your self awareness and honesty. If you find yourself feeling bad about not being able to do it all, it may be time to adjust the exacting expectations you hold yourself to.
Remember, saying you’re sorry isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness. In fact, a well-placed apology can be very powerful. What’s important is to address the deeper reasons you may be relying on apologies as a verbal crutch. With effort, you can find clearer ways to express what you truly mean and feel more confident in your communication as a result.
Melody Wilding is an executive coach, licensed social worker, and professor of Human Behavior at Hunter College. Her clients include high-performing managers and leaders at places like Google, Facebook, and HP. Sign up for your free guide, The 3-Step Workday Reset at melodywilding.com