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Is it Time to Stop Saying Sorry?

Is it Time to Stop Saying Sorry?

By Cynthia Mahoney

{3 minute read}

Oh, it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.

So crooned Elton John in his song titled, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”.  

But this is not the case for many of us, especially if we’re female. In fact sorry is a word we say far too often for our own good and this habit can be getting in the way of finding our confidence as a leader.

As a personal leadership development specialist I felt compelled to discuss this topic when I read this article in The Age newspaper* this morning:

"Sorry I have caused so much trouble.”

These were the first words Whitsunday Island shark attack victim Justine Barwick said to her husband as she continues her recovery in a Brisbane hospital.

"In typical Justine fashion, her first words to me were 'sorry I have caused so much trouble' and she is asking after the welfare of family and friends," husband Craig said in a statement on Monday.

Justine is not alone in her instinctive reaction to apologise. For many of us it is almost our default – and it happens in moments big and small.

I can remember sitting at a café when the wind blew my notes onto the woman at the next table – she kindly returned them to me with the words, “I’m sorry.”

It still haunts me many years later to recall a situation where my new boss {actually my boss’ boss} informed me out of the blue that he wanted to talk to me about my communication. He then went on to say, “Well how do I put this, your communication, it’s cringey. It makes me cringe.” My response? “I’m so sorry. I don’t understand, can you please give me an example so I can understand?” “No”, he replied. “I don’t have any specifics, it’s just a feeling I’ve got but how about your line manager and I draw up some communication protocols for you to follow”. Again I apologised!  Not long after this I left that job. 

When I look back on that scenario now, and after exploring it further through my coaching training, I can see that I had some responsibility in how things turned out. From his perspective when he raised the issue, what did I do? I apologised. So he may have thought I was agreeing with him. My lack of skills in being assertive and being able stand up for myself in an uncomfortable situation may have failed to nip the situation in the bud or to have usefully explored what was going on in his mind. Then again, it may not have mattered what I did or said, I will never know. 

What I did do through my habitual apologising was to reduce my own power and potentially take responsibility for something that wasn’t clear or described in a way I could do anything about.

What about you? Are you a serial sorry-giver? What are the consequences for you?

From a self-leadership perspective an over-abundance of ‘sorries’ is an unproductive behaviour. So, I'd like to share four strategies you can practice and experiment with:

  1. Press Pause. Press the pause button before responding to give your brain time to kick in before your mouth does for a more considered response.

  2. Practice Being Assertive. There are some techniques that give you a structured way to respond and can assist you to use other language in an uncomfortable conversation instead of reverting to sorry {e.g. the 3F’s - Facts, Feelings, Fair Request; the DESC Script – Describe, Express, Specify, Consequences}.

  3. Try substituting "Thank you" instead of "Sorry". 

  4. Conduct a Sorry Audit on yourself. How many times during a day do you say sorry? What for? Do you really mean it? If not, what are you trying to achieve by saying sorry and what could you say instead? How do you feel when you say sorry less often?

Of course we should say sorry if the situation genuinely warrants it. I believe accepting responsibility is an essential leadership attribute, it’s vital for your credibility to not pass the buck to others. I also don’t want to advocate for an action that is just going to put more pressure on women about something else they need to add to their to-do-list.

However, when the over-apologising habit is getting in the way of your leadership capability, when it diminishes your personal power and your voice, when it sees you taking responsibility for things that clearly aren’t anything to do with you {e.g. woman being attacked by shark or wind blowing MY notes onto another woman!} then perhaps it’s time to #stopsorry.

How might a commitment to #stopsorry impact positively on you and others around you? What might change?

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This article was written by Cynthia Mahoney, a regular contributor to Dream Believe Create Magazine. Cynthia works with individuals, groups, business and government in leadership and personal development, facilitation, coaching, strategic planning and evaluation.

Click here to find out more and contact Cynthia.

* Whitsunday shark attack survivor speaks as two more sharks killed {Toby Crockford 24 September 2018}

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