After 10+ years of executive coaching, I’ve watched and listened to clients use “I’m Sorry” as a poor substitute for bridging uncomfortable gaps when they’ve communicated poorly. Professional coaching impacts all areas of clients’ lives. For instance, we often begin with learning to speak and act wisely in personal relationships because getting into good habits then positions you well for successful communication interactions with everyone. Similarly, focusing on improving my client’s personal relationships has the biggest, most immediately felt impact because it allows them to create deeper, more secure and meaningful relationships with others.
One of the most common communication pitfalls is ineffectively using the phrase “I’m sorry.” Most of us were raised or have learned to say “I’m sorry” when we’ve acted or spoken unwisely as a way to make amends and acknowledge our mistake. However, simply saying the words “I’m sorry” fails to address root behaviors or the impact one’s actions have had on another. Saying “I’m sorry” without an acknowledged willingness to change is an example of speaking unwisely because doing so:
- doesn’t cause you to stop and consciously think about doing it differently in the future
- lacks validation to the hurt person that you’ll be attempting to do it differently
- acts as a filler to make you feel better but fails an acknowledgement to the hurt person
- avoids any meaningful acknowledgement of your action
For example, let’s say that I’ve agreed to stop at the store on my way home from work to get dog food. When I arrive home and my partner, irritated, asks where the dog food is, it might be perfectly natural for me to say “Shoot, I forgot. I’m sorry.” The problem here is that my partner has asked me to do something, I’ve agreed to do it and then it doesn’t happen. Chances are my partner is irritated because I’ve forgotten to do it and even more irritated because there’s still no dog food. On top of that, the “I’m sorry” does nothing to address any feelings of irritation nor help in the resolution of having no dog food. Plus, if I often forget to do things I’m asked, there might be an even higher level of irritation because I always say “I’m sorry” but nothing ever changes..
Now let’s look at what a constructive “I’m sorry” would look like. :
- I would think about a strategy to help me remember in the future
- I would acknowledge that it could have, and should have, been done better (replacing “I’m sorry”)
- I would validate that my forgetfulness has been both inconvenient and irritating
- I would offer a solution
A solution to the previous example might sound like “I realize that I said I’d stop and get the dog food but didn’t. I can imagine how frustrating and irritating that was for you. The next time you ask me to stop on my way home, I’m going to put a reminder in my phone for 5:30 pm so I don’t forget. I’ll run out and get some now….is there anything else I can pick up while I’m out?”
Working on how and when to use “I’m sorry” constructively is a common strategy in speaking wisely. If we learn to use it authentically it makes our loved ones feel acknowledged and validated, it inspires us to be more mindful and it builds trust and intimacy in relationships. If you’d like to make phrases such as “I’m sorry” land in meaningful ways, join our “4 weeks to speaking mindfully program” for just $750. Contact Coach Andrea to sign up today.