The One Word To Avoid At Work

Sorry, I am in your way.

Sorry, to bother you.

Sorry, I'll edit and get that report back to you.

Sorry, is this seat taken?

Oh, excuse me, did I inhale too much air? Sorry! (Exhales 50% of the air).

Sorry this, and sorry that! 

I don't know about you, but I say sorry a lot. Not because I am a perpetual screw up, but out of habit. It is one of my conversational fillers learned from growing up in a cultural and hierarchical society (Nigeria). In my mind, it embodies politeness and shows respect to the person at the other end of the conversation. Back in the day, it was a good way to dodge a few strokes of good ol koboko at school. I've become so good at apologizing for nothing that I even have an alternate phrase - "my apologies...I was just trying to..." Lol. It is ridiculous!

To be clear, It is okay to show genuine remorse for something you've done wrong. But using the "S" word in certain contexts or as a synonym for "excuse me" may come across as accepting blame or admitting guilt in situations where you've done absolutely nothing wrong. Saying sorry is a face saving gesture (either for the self or the other) that is usually done with good intentions, however, constantly using the phrase "I'm sorry" (especially at work) can and will undermine you competence and cause you to lose credibility. 

To put this in perspective, imagine this all too common scenario. You're working on a group project and you've held up your end of the bargain, but need the input of others to move the conversation forward. Reaching out to the person is a perfectly normal and acceptable response. What you shouldn't do is apologize for asking for a progress report - i.e "I'm sorry to be a bother, but have you....". 

On a personal level, an everyday situation - imagine minding your business at the supermarket/grocery store, you turn a corner at the aisle and get startled by someone - "oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you standing there". That is the point, you didn't see the person standing there, does that really require an apology? An "excuse me" will suffice in this situation. Do you see how easy it is to apologize? 

Again, I am not calling for insensitivity or encouraging people to become jerks. Instead, I am suggesting that we become more aware of how much we use the "S" word and how that undermines us in our work and personal lives.

So, if like me, you have the habit of saying sorry to, and for everything, what is the way forward? How do you stop apologizing when the situation doesn't call for it? Here are three (4) things that can help:

Become self aware

How often do you say "I'm sorry," where do you say it, and why? "Sorry" is one of my frequently used word - work emails, conversations, text messages, and voice notes are plastered with apologies. I even love songs that say "I'm sorry" (lol, just kidding about that last part). For me, "sorry" is a subconscious conversation filler, very much like "uhm," "you know," and everyone's personal favorite "like'. It also feels like a polite thing to say, especially in situations where some face saving (for others or myself) is needed.

What is the message?

For every time you've apologized, what were you really trying to say? Back to our two examples, when communicating with a colleague about a progress report, the goal is to move the project forward and not necessarily keep tabs on their work habits. The message here is 'we need to get this done'. Or at the grocery store, bumping into someone at the other side of the aisle wasn't done with a malicious intent, the message here is 'this was an honest mistake, I'll get out of your way'.

Rephrase

Being self aware and understanding your message provides an opportunity to rephrase the message E.g. at work, rather than start your message with "I'm sorry to ...," you can say "hi XO, I am looking over this project and was wondering when the next section would be ready. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help". In this scenario, you've not only asked your question, but ended on a positive note that moves the conversation forward in a good way (i.e. help is available if needed). 

Practice

After many years of being the chief apologizer, it might take some time to quit the habit. Practice rephrasing your message as often as possible. This requires being mindful about situations in which you resort to your default apology mode, taking a second to think through your intended message, and wording it appropriately. The more you do practice, the better you'll become at saying what you mean.

Just a quick recap:

  • A genuine apology is great when the situation calls for it (i.e when you are at fault)
  • Using the word "sorry" as a conversation filler, or as a form of politeness can undermine you at work. It could lead to a perception of implied guilt or acceptance of responsibility/blame for something that isn't working, which could undermine your credibility and call into question your competence.
  • Changing this habit requires self awareness, an understanding of the message you are trying to communicate, rephrasing your message appropriately for greater impact, and practicing mindful communication.

Alright guys, time to let me know I am not alone in the Apology Anonymous club. Share your comments and experiences in the comment section.

Excuse me while I go practice what I have preached here. No more unnecessary apologizing for me.

Professionally yours,

WSN

P.S. Another word I need to drop from my vocabulary is "JUST." But that is a conversation for another day :)