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Four Times You Shouldn’t Apologize (Including When It’s Your Fault)

You can show your emotional intelligence by finding solutions, not yet another “I’m sorry.”

Four Times You Shouldn’t Apologize (Including When It’s Your Fault)
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

“Sorry to bother you.”

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“Hi, sorry I’m late.”

“Sorry!!!”

It’s no wonder people are always apologizing. “Sorry” is one of the first words we learn as young children, and it keeps getting hammered into us as adults. These days, leaders are coached to be sensitive, empathetic, and concerned with others’ feelings–all worthy, important attributes that a great boss (or anyone with a shred of emotional intelligence) needs to possess. So with the best of intentions we go out of our way to be nice and collegial–and wind up overdoing the mea culpas.

The risk in saying “sorry” too much is that apologies carry baggage that can undermine others’ confidence in you. It’s often the verbal equivalent of a hangdog face, downcast eyes, or slouching shoulders. Why put yourself down? Here are four times you can take responsibility–and take action–without having to be so contrite.


Related: Sorry, Not Sorry–Why Women Need To Stop Apologizing For Everything


1. When You’re Asking For The Floor

Some people apologize right before they’re about to speak up. Maybe that’s when you’re interjecting a point into a conversation–“Sorry, if I could just add something?”–or responding to somebody in a meeting: “Excuse me, I’d like to speak to Eric’s point.” But what exactly are you sorry, or need to be excused, for?

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Other times you may find yourself apologizing even when you’re the one who’s just been interrupted: “Sorry I wasn’t finished.” Getting a word in edgewise at work can be challenging, but apologizing will only make you sound tentative and less deserving of airtime. So just forego the apology and get right to your point.

A similar thing even happens in voicemail greetings: “Sorry I’m not here. Please leave a message” is a common refrain. Why should you be sorry for not being there? You have better things to do than sit around and wait for phone calls.


Related: What Happened When I Stopped Saying “Sorry” At Work For A Week


2. When You’re Feeling Unsure Of Yourself

Whether or not you’re consciously aware of it, this type of knee-jerk apology conveys the sense that you aren’t living up to others’ expectations or have failed in some way. The person who arrives late at a meeting and breathlessly says, “sorry I’m late” may be well intentioned, but sharing that thought delivers a negative and distracting message.

Sure, you want to acknowledge that you might’ve inconvenienced your coworkers by making them wait around for you, but what’s the harm in (respectfully) positioning yourself as someone who’s in high demand? Maybe you had a competing appointment. Why not just say, “Thanks for waiting–I won’t keep us longer than we’d originally planned, so let’s get right to it.”

Similarly, when your own presentation is running slightly over the time limit, don’t say, “Sorry, I just have three slides left.” If you feel you’ve used up all your time, just cut your presentation short (something you should always be prepared to do, by the way)–often a better move than apologizing for making everyone stay too long. And if you nearly bump into someone as you turn the corner, don’t fall over yourself with “sorry”s–just smile and make them feel good about the near encounter: “Ah, didn’t see you there! How’s it going!?”

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There are always moments that make you feel vulnerable and want to ask for forgiveness. I found myself struggling with a new routine at the gym recently and uttered “sorry” to my personal trainer when I couldn’t nail it right away. His generous response was, “It’s okay.” But where did that get us? Nowhere except that I felt inadequate for longer than I probably had to.


Related: Four Words And Phrases To Avoid When You’re Trying To Sound Confident


3. When You’re About To Deliver A Zinger

You might be tempted to apologize before delivering bad news, but that will only intensify the negativity and–even worse–swallow up whatever notes of empathy with which you try to moderate it. For example, in a statement like “I’m sorry to tell you the customer didn’t like the idea we pitched,” the news that all that work ended up getting rejected will totally overpower the softer-sounding preface. Sometimes saying “sorry” in these tough situations can even backfire: when you say, “I’m sorry to tell you that we’ll be downsizing our group,” what sounds compassionate to you might even ring false to your team members.

No apology can ever truly offset bad news. Instead, cut to the chase and offer support in the form of guidance about the next steps you’ll need to take. Actionable information, transparency, and leadership are all more important–and genuinely empathetic–than verbal expressions of how bad you might feel.

4. When It’s Your Fault

Sometimes you really have done something wrong that clearly warrants an apology. And in those situations, by all means, take responsibility! But saying “sorry” might not always be the best way to do that.

Suppose you know you won’t be able to meet a deadline you’d initially set–a project is just taking longer than you’d expected. Should you say to your boss, “I’m sorry, I won’t have that presentation ready on Tuesday like I’d promised”? Maybe not. It’s certainly incumbent upon you to explain that you won’t be able meet your commitment, but don’t miss your opportunity to deliver that news as positively as you can: “I know we discussed having the presentation ready by Tuesday, but there’s some critical information that won’t be available until Monday, and I’d really like to include it. So my goal is to have the presentation to you by the end of the week–how does that sound?” This response is forward-looking and proactive.

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In all these situations, there are often better ways to communicate than by saying you’re sorry. Don’t drag yourself down. Show your empathy and emotional intelligence by finding solutions, not apologies.

About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders.

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