Owning up to your slip-ups at work is important, but there’s a difference between apologizing when it’s appropriate and developing a pattern of over-apologizing.
If you find yourself with an “I’m sorry” habit that you’d like to minimize or get rid of altogether, here are a few ideas to help you carefully choose your words at work in order to gain the confidence and respect you need to thrive in your role.
Keep track of the sorrys
You’ve already taken the first important step of identifying the habit you want to change. Now it’s time to start pinpointing exactly why you’re apologizing so much. Maybe you’ve never really stopped to think about it or note when and why you’re apologizing, but psychologists recommend that breaking a bad habit requires figuring out what is triggering the behavior in the first place.
To get to the root of the problem, grab a pen and paper, your journal, or employ your favorite note-taking app or program and try the following for a week:
- In the beginning, create hash marks or some sort of notation every time you say "sorry" in a meeting, over email, or even in common spaces like the break room.
- Switch from a simple daily tally to adding a note describing the situation in which you apologize and logging exactly what you said and what the other party or parties said—to the best of your memory.
- At the end of the week, tally your “sorrys” and star or highlight repeat scenarios.
Consider this practice an opportunity to research and log your behavior. You can then use this data to take on the next step of breaking down the healthy apologies from those that may prevent you from communicating in the most impactful way at the office.
Be mindful of apologizing when you’re not at fault of anything
While it’s very possible that a mistake is prompting your response, it’s also likely that you say sorry when you’ve done nothing wrong. When you do this, you may inadvertently discredit yourself and cause others to question your authority or confidence.
To remedy this, study your data. Go back to it and star or focus on the instances when you apologized for something that was not a mistake or something you were not responsible for. Contrast that by noting when an apology was necessary because you were at fault.
Note how often apologies correspond with actual errors versus when they happen simply out of habit by asking yourself these questions:
- Are there particular situations (such as a meeting or over the phone or email) that prompt more apologizing?
- Do you apologize with certain team members more than others?
- What does saying “sorry” help you gain or communicate?
- What are the reactions of others on the receiving end of your apology?
- Does an apology warrant a positive, negative, or neutral result?
After you review your behavior, you’ll have a more granular understanding of the frequency and nature of your habit. Maybe you realize your habit is worse over email or in one-on-one meetings with a supervisor. Use this information as a place to start when you practice removing the apologies from these interactions.
Test out an apology-free week
Once you discover that a given situation or communication method has you in an apologizing frenzy, take action by trying one day or one week without apologizing, particularly in those triggering instances. Instead of apologizing, create thoughtful responses that better communicate what you’re trying to convey rather than relying on an “I’m sorry.”
For instance, if a colleague expresses disappointment in a media campaign that did not pan out as anticipated, say something like, “I wish we had seen better results. What do you think we could do better next time?”
If you struggle with apologizing over email where it’s often much more difficult to understand tone, test yourself to omit the word “sorry” even if you find yourself in a challenging situation.
For example, if someone is following up about a deadline you accidentally missed, try replying, “Thank you for your patience. I will have everything to you by the end of the day today.”
On a lighter note, if you forgot to attach a document that you referred to in a body of an email, there’s not necessarily a need to apologize. Simply say, “Thank you for bringing that to my attention. Please find the document attached this time around.”
Apologizing does not have to be detrimental or a blind habit if you’re mindful of using this phrase sincerely. In fact, it can be a useful tool for being an effective communicator within your organization and outside of it.
Add the practice of mindful apologies (and dropping those that come from habit) to your collection of healthy professional habits, and you’ll find yourself spending less time and energy questioning yourself and instead standing by and making each and every word count.
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About the Author | Yoona Wagener is a freelance writer and WordPress developer who believes in the value of nonlinear career paths. She has experience in academic publishing, teaching English abroad, serving up customer support to software end users, writing online help documentation, and mission-driven nonprofit marketing and communications.