Trying to get ahead in work or life? Eliminate this one phrase from your vocabulary

The advice in this post applies to your lives both inside and outside the office. It applies to all people, but especially to women, who tend to be guilty of using this phrase far more frequently than men do.

“I’m sorry.”

How many times a day do you say this phrase?

Now, how many times did you say this phrase when you were actually at fault? Unless you’re going through a particularly bad day, I predict this number to be a mere fraction of the total instances. Instead you have probably used this phrase when:

  • you don’t understand something
  • speaking up at a meeting
  • offering an idea
  • you bump into someone
  • someone else bumps into you
  • etc.

In which of these cases are you at fault? Unless you make a habit of purposefully running into people, it’s none of them! So why are we apologizing?

Never apologize unless it’s your fault

“I’m sorry” is a very powerful phrase when used to signify remorse and to ask for forgiveness after arguments. By using it out of this context, you at best weaken the power of the phrase and at worst prepare everybody to find you at fault.

We say “I’m sorry” because we want to avoid people criticizing us for a bad idea or for thinking ill of us. And it works. Saying “I’m sorry” is the equivalent of saying “Don’t hurt me” and few people are soulless enough to ignore that plea.

But then what reason do they have to like or admire your idea? You’ve already warned them in advance not to be disappointed. Your credibility as the confident and smart person that you actually are is lost.

We – especially women – must change this perception. There has been much literature about the income and achievement gap between men and women – but we cannot claim our equal rights in the workplace until we stop selling ourselves short.

Here a couple of steps to start eliminating this phrase from your vocabulary.

1) Identify your self-deprecating phrase. “I’m sorry” is the most common one, but here are some similar and equally undesirable variations:

  • “This may be a stupid question but…
  • “We may have already already covered this but…
  • “I wanted to say real quick…
  • “I kind of think that…

Pick just one phrase. It will be tempting to try to stop them all at once, but you want to maximize your chance at success.

2) Determine 3 situations when you’re most likely to say this phrase. Mine were: in meetings, in the gym locker room and on the phone

3) For the first couple days, don’t actively try and change your behavior. Start by making notes of how often you say your phrase in these situations and whether there are any triggers in common. Do you say it most often in meetings with your colleagues or only when your boss is present? Figuring out your triggers will make changing your behavior much easier.

4) Now do whatever works for you to consciously stop saying the phrase. For some, telling someone else about your goal holds you accountable. Others need to put a post-it note on their computer screen. Others pay a dollar every time they slip up. Pick the method that works best for you. And be patient, changing any ingrained habit takes about a month, so don’t beat yourself up if you slip up along the way.

It’s hard to comprehend at first how small changes in your language can make such a difference in how others perceive you, but I can attest to it from personal experience. Showing others only your best and most confident self builds your reputation in their minds, and the rewards just compound over time.

So put only your best self forward! And send me your stories if you’ve applied this advice successfully in your life. Especially if something amazing has come from it.

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3 thoughts on “Trying to get ahead in work or life? Eliminate this one phrase from your vocabulary

  1. Another piece of advice received, along the same lines: eliminate “I think” from your vocabulary. As in “I think we should…”

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