Monthly Archives: February 2016

Saying Sorry is Not the Hardest Thing To Do

Before this client has even stepped over the threshold she is apologising.

‘Sorry for being late’, she says.

She has actually arrived two minutes after the appointed time so she is only ‘late’ by some super-high standard to which no one is ever held in a social engagement.

As I take her coat she does it again.

‘Sorry’, she says, ‘The coat’s a bit heavy but it’s so cold outside’.

I always offer clients tea, coffee or water. ‘Sorry to be a nuisance’ she says, ‘but have you got peppermint or something decaffeinated?’

The sorry word continues in our session where the theme is coaching to get a job she badly wants. Her language as she talks about her impressive experience is peppered with qualifiers and modifiers. She is ‘quite’ proud of having steered her department through a challenging transition; she is ‘rather’ good at managing budgets. When we do a first run of answering the predictable questions about strengths and weaknesses, she starts her answer about strengths with the disclaimer, ‘I don’t want to seem boastful but…’

To see a hilarious and wholly cringemaking example only very slightly exaggerated of how we women over-apologize, watch Amy Schumer’s skit of a conference panel whose subject is women’s achievement where all the participants, as well as women in the audience, constantly apologize.

In the session with my client I find that this apologizing habit is catching. I find myself interrupting her with ‘Sorry to interrupt but…’

I know that the intention behind female apologizing is positive. We want to imply the confidence to convey humility, we want to show the other person that we see ourselves as their equal not as their superior. But, oh dear, how damaging it is. We begin our contributions at meetings with a question, seeking permission to speak, ‘Is it OK to make a point here?’ We begin emails with phrases like, ‘I hope it’s all right to raise this, but…’ or ‘I’m sorry to disagree…’

My client is deeply unaware of her compulsive apologizing. She finds it amazing when she realizes how embedded it is in her language and how undermining it is to her ambitions because even while she is bidding for a very senior job for which her credentials are excellent, she is implying by her words that she does not believe herself worthy of it. We make a joint commitment to spotting and eliminating the pesky sorry word from our discussions. This takes some doing. ‘I think I ought to have some nice little pot and put a pound coin in it every time I say it’, she says wryly. She also confesses that the word was like a protective mantra to her when growing up with a harshly critical mother where apologizing in advance for some sin which you had not actually committed was a way of keeping her mother’s abusive behaviour at bay.

The good news is that you can learn quickly how to stop saying sorry. My client did. She not only got the job, she also did something which very few women do: she negotiated for a better salary when the job was offered to her. Some research suggests that fewer than 10% of women ever negotiate at this stage whereas more than 50% of men do. This client achieved a 15% increase on the salary that was initially offered plus flexible working which allowed her to work from home one day a week.

Is she sorry? She is not.


Sometimes the simplest coaching techniques are the best

The client is sitting in front of me looking hunched and miserable. She and I are at Smart Works ( the wonderful charity where I do occasional volunteer shifts. Women who have been unemployed for some time and who now at last have a job interview come for two things that are normally only affordable by the prosperous and well informed. First they get a new outfit for the interview, skilfully chosen with and for them by professional stylists, who, like me, are volunteers. The high quality clothing is generously donated by the brands concerned or from the lightly-used wardrobes of other working women. Then they get an hour’s interview coaching with someone like me.

Let’s call my client Fatima, not her real name. Having greeted me with a warm if slightly shy smile, her eyes are now downcast, her arms folded tightly across her chest, shoulders hunched. For admin. reasons she has not yet had her ‘dressing’ session so she’s still in her normal clothing: tidy, clean and to be honest, a little dull. We don’t know and we don’t ask about the backstory, but these women are often single mothers who have come out of difficult relationships and all have little money. Often their confidence has been severely damaged by the struggle to keep their kids happy and to find enough money to keep going. It is really important to them to get back into paid work.

Fatima and I have spent a few moments exchanging pleasantries and I have established that what she wants from our session, like so many of the clients I see in my normal coaching practice, is hints on how to manage ‘nerves’. Just talking about it has been enough to send her into a spin.

‘Got a smartphone?’ I ask

Fatima looks a little surprised. ‘Yes’.

‘OK, now give me the phone and freeze!’

I quickly snap a few pictures of the hunched and miserable Fatima.

‘Now show me what you’re like when you’re relaxed and confident’.

She gives me a giggle. Of course she knows what the relaxed and confident Fatima is like. She sits up, her shoulders open, her chest expands, her legs uncross, she is suddenly occupying a lot more space. She looks powerful. I quickly take some more pics.

I show her the results. ‘Which Fatima would you give the job to?

Now we are both laughing.

Fatima already knows how to answer most of the obvious interview questions. Like many of the women I see at Smart Works she is grossly overqualified for the job she is going for, but these jobs are first steps back on to the employment ladder and these women are not too proud to see why this is a good move. But Fatima, again just like so many of the senior women clients I see weekly, is unaware of how she has got into the habit of making herself look small, unobtrusive and apologetic. So most of our session is about how to maintain the confident Fatima’s look and sound.

Recently I heard Amy Cuddy speak about her new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self To Your Biggest Challenges.  Amy’s TED talk is the second most often viewed on the TED site ( ) Amy is an advocate of the Power Pose – standing like Wonderwoman, arms on your hips, legs astride, gazing boldly ahead. She is so right. The chances are that your body language affects your state of mind, releasing helpful hormones that increase confidence.

Later that morning, after working with another client, I drop in on Fatima’s dressing session. Who would know it was the same woman? She is clad in a flattering super-smart dark suit and vivid lemon yellow silk shirt, bright lipstick and a new, gauzy hijab.

‘Mmm, ‘I say, standing with her to look into the mirror. ‘Would you give this woman a job?’

She grins. ‘Yes!’

Of course she got the job. Who wouldn’t want someone like her on their staff: charming, courteous, clever, confident, pretty.

Sometimes I think we over-complicate coaching. Often the simplest ‘techniques’ are the best.