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 peskysorry 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.