Do You Say “I’m Sorry” Too Much? 6 Ways to Stop Over-Apologizing
Do you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” more than you should? Even when you aren’t to blame? Over-apologizing can be a career-limiting habit that can undermine your authority, influence, and leadership.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
A colleague and you talk over each other: Sorry, you go first.
You don’t understand the question: Sorry, could you please repeat that?
You’re delayed in responding to a colleague’s text: Sorry, I was swamped.
You’re not able to attend an event: Sorry, I can’t join you.
The waiter brings you the wrong meal: Sorry, this isn’t my order.
Why Women Over-Apologize
If any of these scenarios sound all too familiar, you are not alone. Over-apologizing is a common problem for many of us, especially women, who are more prone to this tendency. As research shows, we have a lower threshold than our male counterparts for what we believe warrants an apology.
We reflexively apologize for the smallest of infractions to keep the peace and avoid potential conflict. Our desire to appear more compassionate and agreeable often causes us to assume blame for something that isn't our fault or our responsibility.
Although its roots may stem from our upbringing or fear of confrontation, it often continues out of habit.
Over-apologizing should not be confused with a sincere request for forgiveness. When used appropriately, a heartfelt apology can reduce anger, promote compassion, and facilitate trust and connection.
However, excessive apologizing sends a signal to others that you are submissive, undeserving, and lack confidence. This undermines your executive presence and gets in the way of your authority, influence, and leadership effectiveness. Think about it. Are you inspired to follow someone who is constantly apologizing?
How to Stop Over-Apologizing
Like any (bad) habit, the tendency to over-apologize can be overcome or significantly reduced with increased awareness and practice. Start by noticing what triggers you to automatically apologize. Then pause and ask yourself if it truly warrants an apology. If it doesn’t, don’t apologize!
Here are 6 common scenarios in which you may be over-apologizing and techniques to help you stop.
1. When Others Make a Mistake
A stranger carelessly bumps into you and drops and breaks his phone. Without thinking, you utter, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Sometimes we take responsibility for other people’s mistakes because we feel uncomfortable about the situation or just aren’t sure what to do or say. Over time it becomes our default response even when the problem was caused by the other person.
Pay attention to situations that trigger you to assume blame for other people's issues or mishaps. In the example above, you can resist the urge to apologize but still show empathy by saying something like: “Oh no, I hope it can be fixed!”
2. When Making Requests
You are working on a project with a tight deadline, and you ask one of your team members for a past-due report. You say, "I'm so sorry to bother you, but I need your report so we can meet our deadline.”
Many of us apologize for legitimate requests for fear of inconveniencing others or appearing bossy or controlling. However, this makes us appear unsure of ourselves and diminishes our authority and effectiveness.
Instead of signaling that your request is somehow inappropriate and bothersome by apologizing, avoid further delay and possible confusion with a more direct approach: “To make our deadline, I'll need your report by the end of the day.”
3. When Disagreeing with Others
You're having a heated conversation with your boss and disagree with her views. You say, “Sorry, but I have a different opinion on the matter.”
Before sharing a difference of opinion, many of us preempt it with an apology to deflect a potentially adverse reaction. We often do this to avoid appearing disagreeable, or worse, confrontational!
However, disagreeing with someone doesn’t have to be confrontational. You can acknowledge others’ perspectives without apologizing for your own: “Thank you for sharing your perspective. Here’s mine.”
4. When Saying “No”
You’ve been asked to take on an 11th-hour non-billable translation work by another practice group. You say, “Sorry, but I don’t have time to help you today.”
The ability to say “no” when the request doesn’t serve you is a critical self-advocacy skill. But we don't want to disappoint others or appear unhelpful, so we often preface it with “sorry, but …”
Rather than feeling guilty about letting others down regardless of the unreasonableness of the request, reframe your “no” within the reality of your situation, not your unwillingness to help. If appropriate, offer another way to support them: “Unfortunately, I can’t help you today, but please check with me in the future. I'll gladly help if I have the time."
5. When Showing Compassion
A colleague shares how disappointed she is about not getting the job she wanted. You say, “I’m so sorry you didn’t get the job.”
Many of us over-apologize as a way to demonstrate compassion. We do this so automatically that it feels uncomfortable not to apologize when we see others struggling.
There are other ways to recognize and show compassion for someone else’s situation without assuming responsibility, "I know you are feeling disappointed about not getting the position. I am available if you want to talk about it.”
6. When Standing Up for Yourself
During a team meeting, you are constantly interrupted by one of your colleagues. Each time this happens, you regain your place in the conversation by saying, “I’m sorry, but what I was saying is…”
Most women leaders frequently face this type of double-bind dilemma whereby they want to assert themselves without coming across as defensive or aggressive. But when you apologize for advocating for yourself, you’re essentially saying you’re sorry for taking up space and having a voice.
When you find yourself marginalized in this way, it's best to calmly and confidently steer the conversation back to you with “as I was saying” or return to your previous points without apologizing or asking permission to continue.
Want to Stop Over-Apologizing?
Breaking the "I'm sorry" habit can be challenging, but it is worth it. Next time you feel the urge to do it, reflect on how you can express your message without an apology. Instead, turn it into a positive statement. For example, when arriving late for a meeting, say “thank you for waiting for me” instead of offering up an apology. This demonstrates gratitude for their patience instead of regret for your lateness. It will reinforce your confidence and leadership.
Do you want to enhance your executive presence and leadership effectiveness? If so, please reach out to me to learn how I can help. You are also welcome to schedule a 30-min consultation call with me to learn how coaching can help you "get out of your own way" so you can achieve your goals and realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, PCC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator