I'm sorry but...

Consider the following two possible blog openers:

A)      I’m sorry, I know loads of great blogs about language use are out there, but I’m going to share my thoughts with you anyway.
B)      The choice of the words we use is so powerful. I’m feeling inspired and so I’m going to share some thoughts with you.

Which one is most likely to make you want to read more?

In the ‘A opener’ frame of mind, I might say – probably neither but that’s fine, don’t worry. I’m sorry I wasted a few moments of your time, even asking…

In the ‘B opener’ frame of mind, I might hope others feel the same and that they might want to read my valid thoughts, and ideally we might debate, and we might challenge each other constructively, and all who joined in might enjoy the conversation… And, if not? No worries, I enjoyed writing it.

Recently, on Twitter, I’ve come across 2 articles, both shared by @Katherine_Coach about inhibiting words (Inhibiting is my descriptor – I could have used negative, unhelpful, limiting etc.) I correctly guessed both. One was ‘but’ How one word can kill your ability to influence others by Kevin Eikenberry, and the other was ‘sorry’ Do you want to be taken seriously?  from @AdriennePartrid.

So, the word ‘sorry’. I am guilty as charged. I definitely overuse this word. After reading the article, I popped out to collect my son from his Saturday job, and managed to say sorry to at least 3 complete strangers: The man blocking the aisle in the shop who didn’t hear me the first time I said ‘excuse-me’ to pass, the man who was entering the shop as I was leaving and with whom I had a short game of ‘after you’, ‘no after you’, ‘I insist’ etc. OK, so I was being polite and manners matter, but really, was an apology necessary each time? ‘Thank you’ really was all that was required. Yet, even with a heightened awareness of overusing ‘sorry’, I still did it… arghhhh!

Let’s put this down to good manners and ingrained Britishness. However, I think the article raises a very valid point about overusing ‘sorry’ in environments where you need what you have to say to have equal validity with what others are saying. Why should you preface your point with ‘I’m sorry, but…?’ Was everyone else sorry for their contribution? Are you actually sorry to have a different view, or something else to add? Or are you perfectly happy with your views, but uncomfortable with upsetting the harmony (potentially)? Maybe you think that you are softening your contribution so that you don’t displease others? The point here, is that ‘sorry’ can lessen the impact and, used too often, can result in your views not being taken seriously. I could talk about this at length, and add that prefacing statements with ‘I’m sorry but’ is also popular in the toolkit of the passive aggressive…

Luckily, I have experienced a fantastic line manager and mentor figure, who noticed my overuse of ‘sorry’ and regularly picked me up on it, in the most constructive of ways. I think I’ve improved in professional environments… She also recommended using the term ‘in demand’ rather than ‘busy’. I’m working on that…

Now for ‘but’. How many e-mails, in fact missives, have you received stating ‘we know you are working very hard already, but you are required to do this regardless, and by the way, we need it by 9.00 a.m. on Monday’. (Sent at 5.00 pm. on Friday, possibly with a passive aggressive ‘sorry’ thrown in.) This shows a complete disregard for your priorities, your own planning and your own grown up approach to how you manage your workload. It’s a word that, used in this context, immediately inhibits your freedom to decide how to act. It is limiting and it acts as a full stop, closing down other possibilities.

I wanted to start this next sentence with ‘but’, which I can’t do now, of course. In order to limit the use of ‘but’, I believe it’s liberating to consider using ‘and’ instead. A few years ago, I was a participant on a leadership programme with the NHS in London (Leadership for Workforce Development to be precise.) There was some real stand out learning for me from that. One was hearing Pete Goss speak (Team Philips, single handed round the World yacht race). Another was an exercise concerning playing cards and behaviour depending on hierarchy and position. The example I’m using here required the word ‘but’ to be replaced with ‘and’. In pairs we had conversations that went something like the following:

‘I’ve decided to go on an adventure tomorrow.’
‘And you could go to London.’
‘And you could come with me.’
‘And we could have tea at the Ritz.’
‘And then we could go to a show.’
And then we could go on to Paris.’
‘And we could take the Orient Express.’
After only a few minutes most pairs were planning grand world tours, possibly followed by the moon. And we were smiling, laughing and having some fun. Imagine the alternative: ‘But you’ve got to go to work / but you haven’t booked annual leave / but you’ve got chores to do / but you can’t afford it.’ Possibilities immediately closed down.

I’m not advocating completely unrealistic thinking here of course. How many of us could just set off on an adventure tomorrow with no planning? OK, maybe some of us, but it might only be a short one. Darn it, I just used the word ‘but’. See what I mean?

My suggestion is that every time you think about using the words ‘sorry’ or ‘but’ and especially when you are about to use both together, just hesitate for a moment. Do you really need to apologise? Do you want to close down possibilities and ideas?


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