The biggest takeaways here are to ask for what you need and own up to your mistakes.
(Originally published for Fast Company February 10, 2023)
I was speaking with a client recently when they told me that they had learned not to apologize especially because they identify as a woman. She said she had always been told to say “thank you for your understanding” in any situation, which raised some red flags for me.
This has nothing to do with gender and how you identify. This is a universal theme for everyone. I have worked with both men and women who apologize when they don’t need to—and I have worked with those who overuse the “thank you for understanding” when I don’t understand, and they should have apologized.
Here are a few clarifications on when to use each without making you look like a pushover or annoying.
STOP APOLOGIZING FOR THINGS BEYOND YOUR CONTROL
Inconveniences or emergencies don’t require an apology. Here are a few examples:
- Something is taking longer than you anticipated
You are pulling up a PowerPoint to share during a presentation and it is taking a while to load. This is not your fault. Rather than apologizing for something out of your control—take some power back here and ask your audience for what you need: “Please wait one moment” or “I ask for your patience for one more minute.” If you start apologizing in a scenario like this, you lose all your cool, power, and leadership presence.
- There is a sickness or family emergency
You were supposed to be in the office today, but your child is sick, and you need to stay home to mind them. People get sick, people have emergencies. Not everything is in our control, and this is a prime example of a situation that is out of your control. When you apologize for something that is out of your control, you are trying to take ownership of the situation—and it becomes awkward. A simple “I am asking for your understanding that I will be out of the office today” is appropriate here.
- You lose your place or make a word flub
You are giving a presentation and made a word flub or lost your place. Rather than saying “I am sorry” (giving away all your power), ask your audience to “please wait one moment” or “excuse me, what I meant to say was . . .” or “let me make a correction.”
It is not dissimilar to burping or a hiccup. Do you say “I am so sorry” every time you burp or hiccup? No. It is a normal human function. So are word blubs and forgetting your place. So, a simple “excuse me” will do. If you make a meal out of your apology: “I am so sorry I lost my place, sorry it will take me one second, so sorry . . .” it makes your audience feel uncomfortable. When you say “excuse me,” you bring awareness that something happened, and everyone can move on.
APOLOGIZE TO TAKE OWNERSHIP OF YOUR MISTAKES
When you make a mistake or you do something wrong and you don’t own up to it, it diminishes your credibility and lowers your ability to be trusted. Mistakes happen, but you also learn a lot from them. If you don’t acknowledge the mistake, don’t take ownership or accountability, and blame other people, you will have a negative outcome. You look bad. The best leaders own up to mistakes and quickly learn from them.
Here are some examples of when to apologize:
- You made a big mistake that was in your control
Early in my career, I had a coworker who made a huge mistake with a marketing campaign we were working on. They had neglected a critical step that they were well trained on. Rather than owning up to this mistake, they blamed other people, made up excuses, and kept defending themselves. This went on all morning until I finally said, “Let’s call it a mistake, and move on from here.”
Finally, they said, “you are right it was my fault, and it won’t happen going forward.” Hours of excuses and valuable work time could have been saved by simply owning up and addressing the problem head on.
- You offended someone or lost your patience
Sometimes, we unintentionally offend someone or make someone uncomfortable. When this happens, an apology is due. The same goes for when you lose your patience. The past few years have been a struggle for everyone, and tempers are short-fused. You may have lost your cool on occasion, but it is important to keep your temper in check. If you lose your temper or have short patience, apologize for your misstep.
- You don’t value time
You are late to every meeting, or you cancel meetings at the last minute without an excuse like the ones that are in your control (above). This is especially where “thanks for your understanding” will simply not do. You need to either apologize for your consistent tardiness or let those that are expecting you know you will do better to be on time.
“I am sorry to do this last minute” goes a long way rather than “I am going to cancel this meeting, thank you for your understanding” if I am waiting in the meeting for five minutes only to learn you are not showing up.
DON’T ASSUME PEOPLE WILL REACT THE WAY YOU EXPECT
I am hesitant to use the phrase “thank you for your understanding” or “thank you for your patience” because you assume the person will react a certain way, when they may react the opposite. Again, ask for what you need. “Thank you for your understanding” can come across as passive-aggressive.
When you ask or suggest they have more patience with you, “I am asking for your patience” or “I am asking for your understanding,” you are giving them a suggestion without telling them how to feel.
The biggest takeaways here are to ask for what you need, own up to your mistakes, and not assume people will react how you want them to. There is no harm in asking for patience and understanding. Any over-apologizing will make you look like a pushover, and you will lose respect. Be mindful of the situation: Is this mistake actually your fault? Or ask yourself, “is this situation out of my control?” That will be the best barometer of when to spend the very valuable “I am sorry.” If it is overused, it loses its currency.