5 Better Things to Say Instead of 'I'm Sorry' At Work

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June 16, 2024 at 4:29PM UTC

Not to contribute toward society’s habit of picking apart feminine communication patterns, but I’ll say it: in my own life, at least, the tendency to over-apologize was something I had to put effort into unlearning. 

Now that I struggle less (or at least less than I once did) with assuming responsibility for just about everything that happens in the world, “I’m sorry” isn’t quite as common a part of my daily vocabulary. Which is ideal. After all, beyond the issue of taking responsibility where it isn’t due, as a default apology, this language has the tendency to oversimplify a situation into black-and-white terms — my fault versus yours. And that isn’t always the most beneficial tool for arriving at actual solutions, including in our careers.

The next time you feel compelled to say “I’m sorry” at work, consider whether one of the following five statements might better capture your true meaning. 

You want to say: “I’m so sorry I’m late in getting this to you.”

Instead, say: “Thank you for patience as I finalize this project; I’m excited to hear your thoughts once I’ve submitted it to you on X date.”

By switching from “I’m sorry” to “thank you,” your show of gratitude gives the other party something in response for the inconvenience you fear you’ve caused. It also allows you to retain ownership of the situation while pointing toward a soon-to-be-had solution — which is certainly preferable to an empty “sorry.”

You want to say: “I’m sorry to bother you.” 

Instead, say: “I know how busy you are, but I’d love your feedback on something. Is now a good time?”

We’re all busy, and it’s good to be mindful of that. But being busy doesn’t mean that speaking to you isn’t also a related function of this person’s job, and that needing their help is something you should feel sorry for. Acknowledge the fact you’re asking to use up some of their time without the apologetic preamble. 

You want to say: “I’m so sorry I wasn’t prepared for that presentation.”

Instead, say: “That didn’t go the direction I’d planned. Here’s how I’ll fix it.”

A cut-to-the-chase solution is always preferable to a drawn out “I really messed that one up” apology. Starting to see a pattern here?

You want to say: “I’m sorry, but I disagree.”

Instead, say: “That’s an interesting perspective. Here’s how I was thinking of it.”

Having a difference in viewpoints isn’t something either party should feel the need to apologize for. Period. When you use the above language free of “I’m sorry,” you reinforce the idea that more than one perspective can be valid at a time, and that’s likelier to yield better outcomes. 

You want to say: “I heard about what happened, and I’m sorry.” 

Instead, say: “That must have been so hard to navigate. I’m here to help if you need anything, including by doing X thing.”

If something bad has happened in a colleague’s personal life, try switching from a place of sympathy (a la “I’m sorry) to a place of empathy when showing your concern. It’ll make for a more meaningful exchange and strengthen your connection to them. 

Key takeaways:

  1. Default apologies oversimplify more complex situations into black-and-white terms, suggesting the apologizer is at fault.
  2. If you're tempted to say "I'm sorry" when you haven't done anything wrong, considering using an alternative approach.
  3. For example, rather than saying “I’m sorry, but I disagree," try “That’s an interesting perspective. Here’s how I was thinking of it.”

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