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Sorry to have to ask. Will you please stop apologizing?

I recently had lunch with a friend who I haven’t seen in a long time. It was a wonderful reunion and great to catch up with her. As we sat and talked I realized that my friend spent a great deal of time apologizing. Once I heard this pattern emerge I listened more carefully. Here’s what she said: “I’m sorry to tell you this.” “This might not be something you want to hear.”  “I’m sorry, I know this sounds silly.”  “I know you’ll think I’m nuts.”  “Please don’t think I’m crazy.” “This may completely turn you off.” “I hate to even bring this up.” “I’m so sorry to burden you.” “I’ve rambled on so long, sorry.”


Why do we apologize?

These kinds of apologies can show others that we value their opinion of us. We often apologize from a place of good intentions. We’re trying to make a connection with the person we’re talking to and we fear that we might say something that would disrupt the flow, or even worse, cause conflict. If the person we’re talking to actually does think our idea is of little significance then we’ve already acknowledged that possibility so it lets us off the hook. We don’t have to take responsibility because we’ve apologized in advance.  


The problem with this approach is that apologizing can make you seem nervous, insincere, tentative, hesitant, solicitous, or worst of all (sorry to have to tell you) powerless. Separating yourself from your own ideas, thoughts and opinions as if they don’t really matter to begin with is not the best approach for creating engaging, meaningful or effective conversations.


Can we overcome this behavior?

It’s easier to overcome this behavior when it happens between two people. So, instead of saying, “I’m sorry,” the most important thing you can do is pay attention to the other person’s behavior. Listen and watch and try to model what you see. If they are speaking slowly you might slow down your pace, if they smile, you smile. This technique, called “mirroring,” gives you a chance to create and monitor the connection between you. When two people have similar conversational styles—that is, when their pace, rhythm, language, pitch and body language are in synch, there is a better opportunity to connect.  


Mirroring is harder to use in a public speaking venue because you have many different people and styles in front of you. What’s the best approach?  Do your homework ahead of time and get to know your audience. When you become familiar with their culture, language, style and qualities you are better equipped to communicate successfully. Whatever you do don’t second guess your message. If you are giving a presentation, it’s expected that you are a knowledgeable, prepared and confident speaker. So be that speaker and strip your language of apologies.


I once heard a woman who was replacing another speaker say to an audience, “I’m really sorry you have to listen to me today because I will not be nearly as inspiring as the person who was supposed to be here.” The entire audience cringed in unison. I felt sorry for her and sorry for the audience but I kept my sorries to myself.

January 19th, 2010 | Permalink | Trackback | Bookmark and Share

2 Responses to Sorry to have to ask. Will you please stop apologizing?

  1. Simon Roskrow

    This is so true, and especially in (traditional) British culture. The underlying desire to be polite is to be lauded, but not the way in which it is usually done, by apologising for everything upfront!

    I read recently (I think it might have been on a Seth Godin blog) about not using “sorry to bother you but…” at the beginning of e-mail marketing campaigns…if you’re really sorry, don’t do it at all!

    Lovely stuff, thank you.


    P.S. (Not) sorry for cluttering up your comment section…

  2. Roberta Guise

    When I emigrated to Israel from England a long time ago, the first Hebrew word one would learn was…Sorry! (for bumping into you, or for not knowing how to say something in Hebrew, for example).

    This would be said with big arm gestures, as if waving your arms through the air would help the listener understand better.

    Interestingly, the word used for Sorry! is also used for some instances of Excuse me…

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