Do you say I’m sorry so often it means nothing?

There are times when I’m sorry just isn’t enough…

Dense smoke and fire swoops toward to engulf Paradise
Paradise under attack

Last summer, a colleague of mine, lived in Paradise, CA. A monster wildfire, the worst in California history, swept across forested ridges and down on the town. Those who took too long to leave were blocked from escape.

My friend and her mom escaped from their car with flames racing toward them. They dashed into the only possible chance to survive. A brick building with heavy steel doors. Others dashed with them while the inferno raged clouding the air with acrid choking smoke.

Cell phones died, communication lost. Outside, many of those who pushed to continue escape died in the conflagration.

As you can imagine, her Facebook page got many comments trying to find out if she was okay…

I scanned her page for news and all I saw was “I’m sorry”, over and over again. My heart lurched. I’m sorry didn’t do this horror justice.

In our communications with others, our vocabulary can undermine us.  Avoid using I’m sorry and you’ll enhance how others see you and build your own confidence.

It happens in the office too…

I was in a meeting recently when someone arrived late. People shifted to accommodate the latecomer. Every one of them used the same two words as they moved over…I’m sorry.

Why were they apologizing?  They weren’t late.

I’ve been in the spa and wellness industry for over 25 years. Coaching, teaching, writing and caring for clients on a daily basis. Many of them were women. 

We women are the biggest apologizers out there.  We use “I’m sorry”, without even thinking about it. It’s become an auto-responder. 

We use it at work, we use it at home, we use it at the grocery store.  We use it so much…it doesn’t mean anything.

Does it serve us to use it so much?  Using it when it doesn’t fit puts you in a position of being seen as weak, subservient.

Choose words that convey the message more clearly…  When you choose carefully, it shows you are listening and engaged in the conversation.

Get off autopilot!

Let’s explore some scenarios where we need better choices.

1. We try to commiserate…

A client comes in late because the traffic was awful.  We all know this happens.  But it isn’t your fault…don’t say I’m sorry. 

Instead offer, “That’s so frustrating and the traffic has been really tough lately.” 

See the difference?  You are showing compassion, not taking responsibility.

2. Some of us use “I’m sorry” as a filler when we’re not sure what to say. 

Don’t do it. 

Instead, stop, pause, and then say, what needs said.

Instead of: “I’m sorry, we need to get some more input on that.”   Take a breath, pause, and then say, “We need to get some additional input on that.” 

You come across much more professional, which is core to moving up and on in your career.

3. Maybe you’re at a meeting and you’d like to give input to a discussion. 

Instead of leading with, I’m sorry, try… “I’d like to ask….” or “Great ideas, I’d like to add to that…”

Again, much more powerful, much more professional.  “Excuse me,” or “pardon me” are great alternatives. Especially, if you need to get past someone, or need to interrupt something.  They are even more effective if you add a “why” tag. 

Here’s an example.  You need to make one quick copy and you can see the person ahead of you will be there quite a while.  “Excuse me; may I make one quick copy? I need to get it back to the meeting.”

This also works for long ques at the grocery store.  In field tests, an “excuse me, may I” got very high return of offers to allow the person to slip ahead. 

You and I have done it in the grocery store when we had a full cart. There’s a guy behind us with a gallon of milk and a little kid in tow. So we wave them to slip ahead of us and their face reflects their gratitude even if they don’t say a word.

4. Ever say I’m sorry… just to keep the peace? 

It’s pretty common.  Again, that phrase makes you look weak in a potentially tough discussion.

How about…”I appreciate what you’re saying, but I don’t really understand your position.”

“Could you explain that another way? It’s not making sense to me.”

“What I’m going to say might be controversial…”

Perhaps you can see there isn’t a common ground and don’t want it to escalate.

Take on a tone to lighten the situation, and make sure there is a sincere smile on your face. Meet their gaze so they know you’re engaged. “Maybe we should agree that we have different views on this.” 

Then change the subject or move away.  Don’t let them drag you into continuing what would just get worse. 

5. Made a mistake? 

We want, need, to accept ownership and not try to dodge responsibility. But we can do it with more effective word choices.

“My mistake, I apologize. Let me take care of that…”

“My error, I apologize. I can handle that…”

When saying “I’m sorry” is the right thing to do. Need to express sympathy for someone’s loss, or pain?  Your condolences will have a much stronger impact if they

1. Know you are “there” with them.

2. That you are really hearing, feeling and responding.

That is easiest done by saying something like… “I’m so sorry to hear your father is back in the hospital, again.”  Use words that confirm what they are feeling.  If there is another word you can use to replace poor, tired, worn out sorry…use it. You’ll have much more impact.

Sometimes you can’t really imagine what kind of pain they might be going through.  Saying so tells them that you are with them and that you recognize how difficult it might be.

Paradise apocalypse…

Paradise burning
Paradise burning, Courtesy Getty Images

The fire howled all through the night. The windows radiated outside heat and the air became stifling. The steel doors held but became as hot as a burner. No power, no lights, only the heat, the night and the roar of the angry fire. Exploding trees boomed around the stout brick building. I don’t think that anyone who wasn’t there can really get a grip on how awful and terrifying it had to be. I know I can’t.

My friend and her mother did survive along with the others. Everything around them was gone. It was a charred wasteland. The people? Many now suffer from PTSD.

Charred remains of Paradise
Paradise aftermath

With tears in my eyes, I wrote on her page…”My dear friend, I cannot imagine your horror and what you have gone through. I can only say I’m glad you are alive.”

Choose your words to express what you feel in your heart and what you really mean. You’ll probably find something much better than I’m sorry.