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Watch Your Buts!
From Career Tips, 2004 Volume 8, August 2004
"I'm so sorry, but..."
How often do you hear this? For that matter, how often do you say it?
Adding the "but" is really a way of avoiding guilt, and is usually heard by the other party as "I'm not really sorry, because it wasn't my fault." I think significant others are particularly attuned to hearing it this way. Years ago when Helene and I went to a relationships workshop, the moderator asked if anyone had every heard their spouse say "I'm so sorry, but...", and then proceed to explain exactly why they weren't at fault. Everyone nodded. She then asked how people felt about it. She really struck a chord; the whole class agreed that instead of making them feel better (the "I'm sorry"), they actually were made angry by what they perceived as an insincere apology. And you really compound the error if you say "I'm so sorry, but you should have known...", in effect shifting the blame to the other person!
It's very natural for us to want to provide excuses (which we think of as "good reasons") when we haven't lived up to a promise, made a mistake, etc. However, expressing an apology this way can do more harm than good. If you simply own up to the mistake in the first place, you can earn more respect. If you're not prepared to just stop at "sorry", here's one very simple technique - just eliminate the "But"! "But" is a word that expresses contradiction, which is one reason that "I'm sorry, but..." comes across like I'm not really sorry. So instead of saying, "I'm so sorry I'm late, but the traffic was bad.", try "I'm so sorry I'm late. I never anticipated how much traffic there would be, and I really should have left earlier."
Here's another way in which you can increase your influence by avoiding the "but." Suppose I have a meeting with Joe to present a proposal. I think my proposal fits the bill perfectly, but Joe has reservations and expresses them. My natural inclination might be to say something that starts like this, "I understand how you might feel that way, but..." This starts out well, by acknowledging Joe's position without agreeing with it. Then I risk blowing the deal with the "but." Joe is likely to hear the implication, "You're wrong, and now I'm going to tell you why." I want to get Joe to brainstorm with me on why my proposal might actually work. Instead, I've thrown in the grenade that can make him defensive about his position before I ever get there. A better alternative would be to substitute "and", as in "I understand how you might feel that way, and here's how I think this proposal address your issues."
Substituting "and" for "but" may feel awkward at first, but it will definitely increase your influence! And next time you're sorry, just be sorry!