When Not To Apologize
Have you ever noticed that we tend to get the apology thing backwards?
Growing up in New Jersey, I remember saying, “sorry” when someone bumped into me in the hallways of Dwight Morrow High School, and then refusing to say “sorry” to my parents when I upset them. And I was even a “good kid”.
Fast forward to today and I find that this “getting it backwards” is still going on.
What’s that about?
A Tale of Three Panelists
Earlier this month, I was involved in hosting a panel. We had three panelists tasked with giving constructive feedback to four research teams as they went through their practice pitches ahead of the real thing later in the year.
Two of the panelists had participated before. They also happened to be male. Both were articulate and confident, and gave their feedback in a straightforward manner. For example,
“I liked the powerful way you began with a narrative that captured my attention.”
“The middle part dragged a bit and you needed to switch gears to provide the data sooner.”
But when the third panelist, who was new to our group and coincidentally female, spoke she said things like,
“This is just a minor comment, but perhaps the strategy could have come through more strongly.”
“I’m not sure how helpful this will be, but I sensed you could bolster your points with some examples.”
She was making excellent points that would help the teams tremendously, but sabotaging herself.
It was all because of those introductory clauses she put in front of her main point, which is called “apology language”.
Even I was discounting what came after the “apology language” precisely because it was there. I had to admit that she came across as not confident, and not worth listening to.
Stop the apology language
After a couple of rounds just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I pulled her aside and pointed out that she was making excellent points, but undermining herself by apologizing first.
I was doing this partly for her sake, but also because we were the hosts. We had invited her to join as an expert, and didn’t want our audience to think she wasn't quite up to the role.
She thanked me for reminding her and admitted that this is something she struggles with regularly.
To her credit, she went through the rest of the panel providing feedback “straight up” – without any apology, and using powerful words.
It was much easier to pay attention to what she was saying, and to respect her as an authority (which she is – that’s why we invited her!).
In this case, it happened to be a woman using apology language. But I’ve seen men do it too. In both cases, it’s inappropriate and diminishes the message and the personal brand of the person speaking.
Who can afford that?!
How we get it backwards
On the other hand, when an apology actually is called for, we often don’t say the words. In some cases, we would like to but are told we can’t apologize for fear of legal repercussions. Like when a company’s product causes harm.
Or it could be when we’re arguing with loved ones and stubbornly refuse to say “I’m sorry” even after the heat of the moment has passed. Speaking personally, it’s often due to pride. And perhaps sheer stubbornness.
Other times it’s with our own team members who we may yell at in a moment of irritation. After all, we can’t yell at the boss and colleagues may yell back. Then we forget or neglect to apologize, whether for image reasons or whatever.
This all seems a shame when a simply and sincere apology would go a long way.
When good people do bad things
Why is it that we use apology language when we shouldn't and refuse to apologize for the big wrongs when we really should?
In my experience, both tend to be rooted in a sense of insecurity, risk aversion and shame.
For example, when I’m afraid my brilliant point may not be so brilliant, I load it with caveats. That way I’m less likely to be attacked or challenged. However, even though it also makes my points less likely to get through to others and get taken seriously. Once again, the fear of ridicule beats out the desire for recognition.
And any time I’ve neglected to apologize when I’ve done something worth apologizing for, it’s again insecurity and shame. I don’t want to lose face. If I don’t admit to it, maybe it didn’t happen or at least everyone has forgotten about it.
The problem is that the ignored stuff just becomes bigger stuff. It takes on larger proportions and doesn’t go away. It’s nursed as a hurt and it festers, waiting for the right time – or perhaps more accurately the wrong time – to burst out, often in some other form.
Let’s get it right
So what can we do to shift the dynamic so we do apologies the right way around?
The most important thing is awareness: To be conscious of listening to ourselves and catching the apology language and replacing it with something else.
This includes silence – and just starting with the main point. No caveats needed.
Another aspect is being conscious when we've lost our temper and need to apologize sincerely. Especially to our junior team members and to the people we love.
What will you do?
In both cases, getting it wrong undermines us. It makes us less effective with our coworkers and family members.
Worse yet, the negativity makes it impossible for our team members to do their best and to be at their best.
So, what will you do to be more effective by apologizing when it’s called for, and dropping the apology language before making your points?
Leave a comment below to let me know which of these is harder for you to do and what you could do to improve.
Such a small change that can lead to monumental rewards! I must admit I am guilt of using unnecessary apology language. I thought it would increase acceptance of message because the message didn’t feel harsh with the use of apology language. I am making the change! No more apologizes unless they are truly warranted. I need to trust in my abilities and experience and not be afraid to share. Thank you, Mary!
You’re welcome. Like you, I’m a fan of small changes that can lead to monumental rewards. Keep on trusting in your abilities and experience!
I have noticed this time your comment directions are to provide “A” or “B.” To answer your question, it is probably harder to give sincere apologies when I am really aggravated about something. However, it is not “over the top” difficult to do A or B.
You may get more feedback to your story by allowing comments of any type.. my initial reaction was that in some cultures, particularly southern US, use of “apology” language as described is not necessarily a sign of weakness, particularly if one has already established a reputation for competence. It can be taken as a sign of being humble.
Another thought–there is often a price to pay for direct, clear, professional comments. Often the primary leaders (whether by virtue of position or real creed) want their message out and do not want confusion by introducing other ideas, whether they believe the team cannot understand the complexity or whether they just want one hymn for everyone to sing/believe.
Many thanks, Udo. Especially for pointing out that each culture may interpret the same language in different ways. And yes, I am interested in comments of any type, even if it’s stated as A or B. Thanks for noticing!
It depends. Sometimes “apology” language is used to soften the message if you’re provide feedback to someone who you know doesn’t accept critics easily. Or just as mentioned before out of humbleness.
I agree on the other hand, by “softening” the message, it might not get through.
I really liked the point about learning to apologize when we have to.
Yes, it’s true that the context matters a great deal. It’s about applying judgment, isn’t it?
This was an excellent, thought-provoking article. I use apology language often to avoid conflict, soften my tone, etc. While on the surface this appears to be benign, even appropriate, there is a chance there is a darker subtext. I.e., using apology language could also be used as a manipulation tool as I am not telling people what I really mean. I am attempting to control their reaction to my suggestions by presenting a passive and extremely deferential representation of myself, when in reality I have very strong opinions and a fair amount of influence in my circles.
Thank you for writing on this topic and exposing this as an area I struggle in. I will begin focusing on removing the unnecessary apology language from my communications.
It will be interesting to learn how this shift changes the way people see and experience you. Let us know what you notice about your impact and effectiveness as you experiment with these different modes of conveying your thoughts.
Wow! Brilliant article and it hit home. This also goes along the same lines as talking in a “question” all the time.
Thank you for providing quality articles, May!
You are welcome!
Good points all around. Truly appreciated.
I love your posts. This one really resonated with me. I use this apology language because I value harmony. In order to minimize any potential negative effect of something I say; I tend to introduce my thoughts with a list of disclaimers, caveats, and apologies. I did not realize I could be sabotaging myself until reading this post. I will certainly take greater care in how I deliver my message in the future. Without offending anyone, of course! Thank you!