sorryA number of years ago, I was briefing the CEO of a company for which I worked on a series of customer services challenges. At one point during our discussion, he interrupted me and told me to quit apologizing. I was baffled. Most of the issues were our fault, right? As a good Midwestern boy, I was brought up to accept responsibility for my mistakes and always apologize. My CEO told me that my apologies were systemic, encouraged more dissatisfaction and did nothing to address the real issue: solving the customer’s problem. I completely disagreed with him; my guilt-ethic outweighed his coaching.

Fast forward many years and I’m finally beginning to understand the wisdom of my former CEO. Apologies are pervasive and overused. I’m not talking about a sincere “I’m sorry” for intentionally or unintentionally hurting someone else. I’m talking about the filler apology for anything that didn’t go the way someone hoped. Some examples:

  • “I’m sorry you’re boyfriend broke up with you.” Why? Did you cause it to happen?
  • “I’m sorry your cat died.” Even if you truly feel this way (be honest with yourself!), the apology adds nothing and is not relevant. It is not your apology to give. You feel sympathetic. Show her your sympathy by buying her a skinny white chocolate mocha.
  • “I’m sorry I _________ and I will work to do better next time.” This is the big one – inserting an apology for every mistake. See below for an explanation.
  • “I’m sorry to interrupt but…” Really?

Am I callous? Am I harsh? Perhaps. Just hear me out. The first two above are expressions of regret. We use an apology to tell someone that we sympathize or empathize. We feel badly for them and want them to know that we understand that it hurts. The problem is that “I’m sorry” loses its power and its value the more it is used. We live in an imperfect world and disappointments are the norm. This isn’t a negative reflection on life, simply an observation that the challenges we face are part and parcel to existence; they are to be expected. Continually apologizing for experiences that don’t bring joy is not helping anyone. Apologizing for events which did not involve you is simply unnecessary.

Now consider the third example above. The all-encompassing “I’m sorry for (insert every possible mistake)”. This variety is the most dangerous kind. Some people use an apology as a replacement for “oops!”. You know the personality type. This is the person who apologizes every time you correct them. They give their power away by persistently apologizing for things that do not require an apology. It makes them appear weak and insecure. This is what my former CEO was trying to teach me. My apologies were not helping the situation; they were irritating our customers more because the more I apologized, the more I sounded weak and ineffectual. You’re sorry? Show me, make it right.

I’ve had people work for me who felt compelled to apologize every time I asked them to change a behavior or coached them on another approach. After a point, this became very disruptive and completely counterproductive. I realized it was a coping mechanism but it completely undermined my confidence in their abilities. I didn’t want an apology. The mistakes were normal and were great learning opportunities. There was no reason to be “sorry” – I just wanted an effort to improve.

What’s the answer? How do we balance our guilt-ethic with an effective apology mechanism? I suggest three approaches:

  1. Delineate between empathy and error. If you are feeling sad for someone and want to express your feelings, don’t apologize. Tell them you are thinking of them and feel badly for their pain.
  2. Remember that not every mistake warrants an apology. The more you say it, the less weight it carries. Make your apologies count. Make them valuable.
  3. Save your apology for when you really screw up. You will have plenty of opportunities. Use your apology with intention. Use it with heartfelt sincerity.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m a huge fan of a powerfully sincere apology. It carries amazing healing powers when used appropriately. My challenge to you is to use it with intention and in the right circumstances. Don’t fall victim to the “apology as sympathy” or “apology as filler for an Oops! moment” traps. Make it count and it will serve you, and those you hurt, well.