I don’t remember when I started being an over-apologizer. It might have been at a previous job, when my bosses told me that I was “questioning” my senior colleagues too often. Somewhere early in my professional journey, “sorry” became an overused word in my vocabulary.
I have learned that my tendency to say “sorry” all the time probably stemmed from imposter syndrome, and the negative reactions that I, as a woman in the workplace, sometimes face when I display any signs of strength or authority. But saying “sorry” isn’t doing me any favors in the credibility department. In fact, it’s doing the complete opposite. By apologizing unnecessarily, I voluntarily put myself in a subservient position.
Over the years, I’ve worked hard to try to eliminate unnecessary apologies in my daily conversations. I still slip up about 20% of the time (bad habits are hard to break, after all), but for the most part, I’ve trained myself to catch the words before they come out by employing a few tips and tricks. If you’re struggling with the tendency to use “sorry” when the situation doesn’t warrant an apology, here are a few things you can do.
1. Say Thank You Instead
When freelance writer Kat Boogaard wanted to curb her over-apologizing habit, she substituted “sorry” with “thank you.” For example, when she was running late to meet someone for coffee, she simply said, “Thanks for waiting for me.”
The rationale between replacing “sorry” with “thank you,” as Boogaard wrote for The Muse, is that by apologizing, she started the interaction in a negative tone, causing her to feel like she needed to spend the rest of the conversation “recovering from [her] faux pas.” On the other hand, saying “thank you” allowed her to recover from her blunder more quickly. “I didn’t need to spend time mentally obsessing over what I had screwed up, because my genuine “thank you” had provided a much more natural segue into a different discussion–rather than the awkward exchange that typically follows an apology.”
2. Provide A Solution
Everyone makes mistakes at work sometimes. Surely that requires owning up to them, right? Not always. For big screw-ups, a sincere apology is necessary, but for small ones, there are ways to take responsibility without diminishing your credibility further.
As communication expert Judith Humphrey wrote in a previous Fast Company article, one thing you can do instead of saying “sorry” is offer a forward-looking solution. Say you underestimated the time it took to complete a project, and you won’t be able to meet a deadline you initially set with your manager. Instead of apologizing, Humphrey wrote, you can say something along the following lines: “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?”
3. Embrace Silence
Sometimes, the best thing is not to say anything at all. A good example of this is in a negotiation–where those with the tendency to over-apologize might start an argument with “Sorry, but . . . ,” unintentionally diminishing their power. Training yourself to pause and allow some silence is a much more effective tool, even if it feels uncomfortable. By pausing, you give more weight to what you’re saying, as Ellevest CEO and former Citigroup CFO Sallie Krawcheck told Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her book, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Talent and Success.
4. Ask Yourself, Have I Actually Done Something Wrong?
Sometimes, the tendency to apologize can come from self-imposed guilt rather than actual wrongdoing. As writer Claire Zulkey previously wrote for Fast Company, women in particular are more prone to guilt and apologize for not meeting certain expectations, even if they themselves aren’t personally interested in meeting those expectations. Zulkey talked about how as a working mother, she felt the need to apologize for putting her son in daycare while she worked full-time, despite the fact that she knows it’s the right decision for her and her family.
Whenever I feel the urge to say “sorry” out of guilt, I ask myself this question. Most of the time, it’s because I didn’t meet some sort of expectation that I’d set for myself that the person I was apologizing to didn’t even have.
5. Enlist The Help Of Technology
If you find that your email is full of apologies, there is a chrome extension called Just Not Sorry that will tell you when you’re using words that might undermine your message. As Lydia Dishman previously reported for Fast Company, the extension will underline words that may hurt your credibility, and if you hover over the red line, you’ll see an explanation of how using that word diminishes your voice. For example, if you hover above “sorry,” you’ll see: “Using ‘sorry’ frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership.”