This week, I was honored to be interviewed for an Oprah Magazine piece by Celia Fernandez on “It’s Time To Stop Saying I’m Sorry” and how it hurts your confidence to say you’re sorry when you’re not. It got me thinking in greater depth about the crushing habit I see in myself and in so many other women I’ve worked with of saying they are sorry when they are actually feeling something very different, and why that happens so frequently.
Below are several key questions I’ve been asked over the years (and my responses) about why women often speak in an apologetic, overly-deferential way and how it hurts them, suppresses their chances for more impact and damages their confidence. My responses are based on my experience as a senior corporate executive, my former work as a marriage and family therapist and my current research and work as a career coach for women.
Why do you think women say “sorry” easier than men?
I wouldn’t say it’s “easier” for women to say “sorry”- I’d say women are conditioned to say it more frequently, and they do it in instances where men do not view an apology as necessary.
In a patriarchal society, there are clear and rigid gender roles and expectations for behavior for both males and females. For example, our society encourages men to be strong, direct, assertive, confident and unabashedly committed to achieving their goals (and to avoid being or showing that they are emotional or vulnerable). On the other hand, our society encourages and teaches women from the earliest age to be kind, malleable, pleasing, accommodating and acquiescing. And they are taught that it’s not good or acceptable for women to appear overly ambitious, confident or strong.
There’s been a great deal of research in the past years showing that forceful, confident and assertive women are in fact punished in our society and in our workplaces. Here’s just one example of research that demonstrates a clear gender bias, revealing that women’s perceived competence and value drop significantly (versus men’s) when they’re judged as forceful. Regarding saying “I’m sorry,” it seems to have become a way that women can appear more accommodating, less forceful and less strident in asking for what they want and sharing what they believe. It’s a way for women to ask for what they want but couch it in terms that make it appear less of a demand and more of a soft ask.
This way of communicating is a damaging mistake that we need to focus on learning how to avoid. Saying “I’m sorry, but…” (such as “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree here, or “Sorry, but I think we’re heading in the wrong direction with this new project…”) undermines the power of your statements. Unfortunately, the result is that women are often not taken as seriously as they deserve to be, and this type of language compromises their leadership impact and authority.
One interesting study showed that men and women apologize equally for what they feel is their own offensive behavior, but women have a lower threshold for what they view is “offensive.” Thus, they apologize more readily and frequently.
What are other ways to apologize without saying sorry?
When you are truly wanting to apologize – let’s say, for a wrongdoing, or for inconveniencing someone, or for being hurtful or mean, then “I’m sorry” isthe right thing to say. A true apology is needed when we’ve wronged someone or crossed a line. And learning how to give an authentic, heartfelt apology the right way when it’s necessary is a critical thing to do if you want to build and maintain healthy relationships.
The issue isn’t that women should stop staying “I’m sorry” altogether. It’s that they need to utter those words only when an apology is necessary, and not when they’re afraid they will offend, upset or put off someone by speaking up for what they want or believe.
We need to be careful that we don’t say “sorry” when we’re not at all sorry . Here’s an example – when someone has cut in front of you in a line that is 20 people long, and you’re mad about it, you don’t want to say “Sorry, but there’s a line here.” You’re not sorry at all. You’re angry that they cut in front of you. Another way to express your feelings on this is, “Excuse me, perhaps you didn’t realize but there’s a long line here ahead of you.”
Another example is in asking for a raise or to oversee the handling of a plum assignment. You don’t want to say to your boss, “Sorry to ask, but I’d love to take over this project – it’s really interesting to me.” Why? Because you’ve just undermined your very requested by apologizing for it. Instead, you want to say something like: “I’m really excited to hear about this new project, and I’d be thrilled to explore overseeing it, if possible. Could we discuss that at your convenience?”
When shouldn’t you apologize?
It’s simple – don’t apologize when you’re not sorry for what you’re saying or doing. And become extremely vigilant in watching your words and understanding your feelings, and making sure your words are a close match to what you’re actually feeling, even though those emotions may be scary to admit out loud. Get into the habit of being a bit more direct and asserting what you know and what you want, rather than being acquiescing and overly-accommodating.
What are some other ways we can communicate strongly without apologizing?
Below are a few examples of how to replace apologetic ways of communicating with a more direct, authoritative approach:
When stating what you know
Apologetic: “Sorry, I may not have the right answer here, but I’m thinking…”
Direct: “I believe the right answer is_____”
Apologetic: “Sorry, but I don’t think I see it that way.”
Direct: “That viewpoint is really intriguing. I have a different take I’d love to share.”
When asking a question
Apologetic: “Sorry, but I have a question.”
Direct: “I’d like to ask a question, please.”
When expressing appreciation for a kind behavior from a friend
Apologetic: “Sorry for bothering you with all this.”
Direct: “Thank you for listening and supporting me through this.”
When asking to join someone at their table
Apologetic: “Sorry, can I have this chair?”
Direct: “Is this seat taken?”
In the end, you’ll expand your confidence and influence when you gain more awareness of exactly what you feel and learn how to express that more directly. You can still be polite, kind and respectful in your communication and in how you share your beliefs, values, and needs. But it’s critical to your ultimate success, your authority and control over your own life, and your confidence and happiness to stop apologizing for what you have every right to express.
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