5 phrases better than ‘I’m sorry’ in professional contexts

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Lindsay Tigar

  • Everybody makes mistakes, and it’s important to apologize when you’ve messed up.
  • But you should be intentional when apologizing in an office setting; if you’re constantly apologizing, people may lose respect for your work.
  • Recognizing when you need more resources or asking for clarification don’t require the qualification of an apology.

In professional settings, we all lose our confidence sometimes. This is especially true when we feel as if we’ve missed the mark, or perhaps, our manager is out in left field and we aren’t sure on how to reel them back in. In an effort to soften the impact or to give an excuse on why you’re imperfect, many will utter two little words that do more harm than good: “I’m sorry.” Here’s the deal: When you have something to apologize for, you should. But if you’re throwing around those words without giving a second thought, you diminish the respect of others in your performance and in your ability to do your job.

Regardless of where you stand on the corporate ladder, you must be your own biggest cheerleader and support system, and if you’re always bowing your head down in defeat — you won’t receive the promotions and praise you’ve earned.

Here, executives on better responses than “I’m sorry.” :

1. “Thank you for your patience.”

Don’t begin a request with “I’m sorry.” shapecharge/Getty Images

Lauren McGoodwin, the founder and CEO of Career Contessa says many of us — both men and women — unconsciously use “sorry” as a preface for a request. “We’re not actually sorry but it’s a buffer to the request we’re about to launch into. When you start your request with ‘I’m sorry,’ it seems like you’re unsure of your request and that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the other person to respond to your request quickly or seriously,” she explains.

Take for instance when you’re late for a meeting or you didn’t respond to an email promptly due to personal reasons. You don’t need to apologize but rather, acknowledge the other party had to wait. Start your sentence with ‘Thank you for your patience … ” and continue with the meeting or your presentation.

2. “Can you please clarify what you mean?”

Women are more like likely to shoulder the “blame” and apologize for wanting to do better. Getty Images

Cait Scudder, a business coach for female entrepreneurs says women tend to apologize if a situation — that is completely untied to their own performance or actions — is uncomfortable, shouldering the “blame” almost instinctively. This can happen in a variety of situations … even when you are simply confused on the details of a project or your boss’s expectations. Why would you apologize for wanting to do better at your gig? Rather, be confident in your quest for more info.

“If you don’t understand an assignment, instruction, or idea a colleague, collaborator or superior is volunteering, ask for more clarification. Defaulting to ‘sorry’ assumes that you not understanding signifies some kind of fault in intelligence, when really, more often than not this is never the case,” she continues. “It’s a much more empowering experience for all if you own your intelligence and power and simply ask for more information so that you can better contribute to the decision being discussed.”

3. “I was wrong — but it wasn’t my intention to … ”

Making a shortcoming into a big deal can actually help you outline a way forward. Getty Images

Sebena Gill, the chief operating officer at Nature’s Green CBD encourage her team to use anything other than “I’m sorry” to express their fault. She leads by example and takes the advice from her mom when she’s failed to achieve a deadline or dropped the ball: make a big deal about it. What does this mean? She believes if you express your shortcoming in a grandiose way, you have the advantage to persuade the end result.

“Once I applied this practice, I noticed that the few times that I was in the position where I was in the wrong, and blew it up bigger than they had the chance to, it almost automatically diffused the situation,” she explains. One way to do this is to acknowledge you were wrong, explain your intention, and provide an alternative solution for the next steps.

4. “We should bring in other resources.”

It’s not a failure to admit you need more help. zoranm/Getty Images

Perhaps you bit off more than you could chew. Or you got into the nitty-gritty aspects of a research project, and you realize you aren’t able to conclude something on your own. Whatever the case, Scudder says there’s no harm in admitting — and asking for — extra hand and other experts.

“Oftentimes if we feel like we can’t complete a task/project job, our initial instinct is to apologize and make it a personal failure,” she continues. “Real leaders and innovators don’t feel apologetic about their own blind spots/shortcomings but think creatively about the resources needed to find a solution to a problem and feel comfortable asking for help.”

5. “Let’s figure this out.”

How you handle roadblocks says a lot about your leadership ability. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

No matter how skilled you are at your job or how much you adore what you do, conflict at the workplace is to be expected. In fact, how you handle roadblocks speaks volumes about your leadership abilities and how flexible you are in the heat of a discussion. It’s unreasonable to think everyone will feel exactly the same about everything on every single project.

But Cassandra Rosen, president of FK Interactive, says it’s not smart to always apologize for your viewpoint, otherwise your opinion will never be valued. She suggests taking the emotion out of the situation, allowing the other party to consider your perspective without feeling as if they are personally wrong. She says “Let’s figure this out” is a team-building, yet confident, statement that helps to diffuse tension and open conversations.

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