“Sorry,” as the Elton John song goes, “seems to be the hardest word.” But in fact, in our culture, it’s become one of the easiest. For many of us, apologizing has become a reflex. Maybe it’s not surprising — we’re social creatures, after all. Apologizing is part of our very human and natural instinct to seek acceptance and belonging. There’s nothing wrong with apologizing — when it’s appropriate.
But over-apologizing comes at a cost. First, it weakens the sentiment in those instances when it’s actually warranted. And second, it makes us appear less confident, which can in turn make us less confident.
So how can we stop apologizing as a reflex and reclaim the power of the apology for when we really need it? If you’re an over-apologizer, don’t apologize! Here are nine ways we can all up our apology game.
1. Know when not to apologize
We can begin to cut down on unnecessary apologies by acknowledging what we can’t control. If something’s not our responsibility, why apologize for it? For instance, bad weather when a friend is visiting. We might genuinely feel bad that an outing was rained out, but that doesn’t mean we should apologize for it.
Another common misfire is when we say, “I’m sorry to bother you.” In many instances, what we really mean is that we need information or need the other person to do something, often something that’s a normal part of their job. Our request is not any kind of imposition. Of course, there might be times when we need something after hours, or when we really are intruding — in which case an apology might be appropriate or courteous. But that’s all the more reason not to apologize when we’re making a perfectly reasonable request.
2. Make adjustments if you need to
If you find yourself apologizing for one particular thing, go to the source of the problem. Maybe there is a small change you can make that will save you from having to say you’re sorry. For instance, if you find yourself constantly running late (one of the most common apology triggers), you may need to rethink the way you’re scheduling your days or managing your calendar.
3. Be open and honest
In many instances, a better alternative than the reflexive apology is to give context. If your baby is crying in a Zoom meeting, rather than “I’m sorry,” you can explain that she missed her nap. Instead of apologizing for background noise, you can let the others know you’re doing some remodeling. If you need something urgently, you can let the other person know why, or help them set priorities in order to make it happen.
4. Learn from it
If something doesn’t go as planned, and even if it is our fault, instead of “I’m sorry,” we can acknowledge what happened and how we’ll learn from it. “That didn’t go as planned, and here’s how I’ll do it differently next time,” lets the other person know you’re taking their concerns seriously.
5. Laugh about it
Often, humor can defuse a situation better than an apology. It’s important to read the room and know when humor is appropriate — and when it isn’t — but a well-placed joke or comment can be a stress reliever and help keep things in perspective.
6. Empathy is better than sympathy
Sympathy is saying, “I’m sorry that happened.” Empathy is saying, “It sounds like that was really difficult for you.” There’s nothing wrong with sympathy, but empathy is a powerful way to open up a conversation and deepen a relationship. We can also draw on our empathy to proactively stop someone else from feeling the need to apologize. If there’s a baby crying during a meeting, saying, “I feel just like she does today!” can ease the discomfort being felt by the mother or father.
7. Try gratitude
If over-apologizing tanks our self-esteem, gratitude does the opposite. When we tap into gratitude, we get a mood boost — and even better, it can be infectious. So instead of saying, “I’m sorry for being late,” thank everybody for their patience. Letting them know you see and appreciate them can go a long way.
8. Don’t apologize for self-care
One thing we should never apologize for is taking time for ourselves when we need it. Sometimes this means saying no to something else. When we stand up for ourselves in this way, we normalize the idea that we should never be so busy that we have no time for ourselves. I know from experience that when I’m not taking care of myself — like when I haven’t gotten enough sleep — I’m much more likely to say or do something that I’m genuinely sorry for because I didn’t show up as my best self. Or, I find myself preemptively apologizing for things I’m just too depleted to deal with. So when we’re unapologetic about making time for self-care, we’ll also cut down on our need for apologies down the line.
9. Give yourself and others a little grace
As our society begins to open back up and people begin to return to the workplace, it’s not always going to go smoothly. People are going to have different comfort levels about masks, social distancing, and simply being around other people again. So give yourself some grace. Don’t feel the need to apologize for doing what you need to do to be comfortable. And extend that grace outward, too, since we don’t always know what challenges others are dealing with.
It’s been a difficult year for everybody. And there are going to be plenty of times when we really do need to apologize. So let’s not be sorry about maintaining the power of such an important tool by not overusing it.