Many of us have heard the popular quote, “laugh when you can, apologize when you should, and let go of what you can’t change.” I often saw this quote, but never paid much attention to it until I participated in a life changing experience at the Women’s Leadership Institute in November of 2011. The overall impact that this experience left on me was one of confidence. Before attending WLI, I was living a personal and professional life that greatly lacked confidence. I did things every day, unintentionally, to undermine any confidence that I did possess. To be very transparent, I had a messed up definition of the word “should” in the above quote.
The most important piece that I took away from WLI was centered on the ways in which we speak about ourselves – “we” often pertaining to women and definitely me. Until this time and place, I never had someone in my life to challenge my thinking or even open my eyes to the many facets of women in leadership, gender roles, and many other issues that impact women daily. I learned two monumental lessons around these topics that changed my world and my thought processes:
- If an apology is not warranted, do not apologize
- Stop beginning sentences with qualifiers such as “This probably isn’t a very good idea, but…” or similar statements
After receiving these pieces of knowledge, I was quick to have in depth conversations with my colleagues Melissa Robertson and Courtney Reynolds in our hotel room at WLI on the topic. I was quickly taken back to the last meeting that I chaired. I distinctly remember feeling inadequate as the leader of the meeting. I remember apologizing to the group for details that were missed that were not within my realm of influence and finding ways to make it my fault – after all, I should be the one to take the blame (or so I thought.) During that meeting, I remember having an off the wall idea that just came to mind and I prefaced my idea with “I haven’t thought this through yet so it’s not very good but…” I was degrading myself to the group that I was supposed to be leading. I wouldn’t stand for someone else to say those things to me, especially in front of others, why I was I giving myself permission to beat myself up publicly? How could this group trust my leadership if I didn’t even trust myself?
An unnecessary apology can also leave you extremely vulnerable and set the stage for how others expect you to act in the future. A few years ago, a conflict arose with a trip I had been asked to take for work and a previously approved family vacation. Instead of sharing that it was important for me to spend this time with family in order to recharge, and ultimately, put family first, I profusely apologized for having the conflict. My actions lead to weeks of uncertainty surrounding the vacation and caused un-due stress for my family. Looking back on this experience, I realize that I was setting a poor example for others in terms of work-life balance and being a change agent in our culture that is often fearful to be away from the office for any amount of time. Once you identify what is necessary for you to re-charge and be the best you, do not apologize for it – ever.
As I reflected on these areas, I began to notice just how ingrained these apologies and self-downgrades were in me – a result of so many years of negative self-talk and believing that I could not succeed. So often throughout WLI, I felt the urge to qualify my statements – to make sure that in case what I said sounded stupid, others wouldn’t think that surely, I thought my ideas were good. Then a funny thing happened. I tried it once. I fought the urge to qualify during a small group discussion. I just said what I thought, plain and simple. And then other women….women in leadership positions…started to agree with me, or another idea was sparked from my thoughts, or we found a common bond. And then the nail in the coffin happened – the moment when I realized this was life changing. One of the women approached me after the discussion and told me that she was impressed by my calm confidence – all by just giving self-permission to share my thoughts and ideas without first qualifying them. How powerful!
Upon returning to work after WLI11, I started to put these new lessons into practice. The first week was eye-opening – it was shocking how much time I spent typing and re-typing emails. I had no idea how often I apologized in email. It took a great deal of practice to determine how to converse via email without an apology. When someone misunderstood a concept I described in emails – I apologized. When someone didn’t meet a deadline – I apologized. When someone disagreed with me – I apologized. Once I stopped apologizing, I found that I felt guilty for a short amount of time – for not apologizing! Then, it became powerful! In addition to becoming more aware of my email responses, I prepped myself mentally before meetings regarding how I would present ideas or respond to differing opinions. I found myself answering my colleagues more slowly as I was formulating new responses, however, it became effective! One month after returning from WLI11, one of my male colleagues approached me after a training session I conducted. He shared with me his observations of my increased confidence level. After this instance, two additional colleagues shared the same thoughts within a week.
I recently transitioned to a new position at Purdue University and have carried these lessons with me throughout each new situation. I whole-heartedly believe that I was offered this position and am successfully navigating the transition due to an increased level of confidence from this experience. Do you struggle with apologizing too often or qualifying statements? How could changing this learned behavior transform your life?
As you are communicating with colleagues, friends, and family this week verbally and in writing, ask yourself:
- Why am I apologizing? Can I identify a specific reason as to why I should issue an apology?
- Is there another way to communicate my message without using an apology or a qualifying statement?
- If I choose an apology or a qualifying statement in this particular communication, how will this shape other’s views and expectations of me in the future?
Follow Kelley on Twitter: @KelleyStier