How I Learned to Stop Saying ‘Sorry’… The Wrong Way

I did it again. I caught myself apologizing today for something that wasn’t my fault. It’s a bad habit I’ve picked up and it has no boundaries. I’ve done it in my personal and my professional life.

It’s a habit that clouds my judgement. Without realizing it, I often took the blame for issues that were not mine to own, simply because of a choice I made in the way I communicated.

Even simple phrases where I transferred information to my clients would start with “I’m sorry to tell you the report came in and your system failed to certify. We’ll have to address that. I know it will cost you some money. I’m sorry to bring you such bad news. Don’t worry; we’ll figure it out.”

It was the home’s deferred maintenance that caused the report to fail, can you identify how many times I took responsibility for the issue? I even ended with, “We’ll figure it out.”

And guess how it was figured out?

Because of the way I phrased it, “We’ll figure it out,” my client felt comfortable asking me to share the financial responsibility.

Do you find yourself taking responsibility when it’s not even yours?

I could have said no, but I didn’t. The new buyers (represented by another agent) had sold their house and packed their moving truck. I wanted to make sure the transaction didn’t stop, but moved forward as planned. It was tremendous pressure. Everything was in motion to close.

We’re all in “sales.” We’re selling ourselves.

Working in residential real estate sales, you become very close to your clients… any sales, really.

Business relationships are founded on trust. Ninety percent of my business last year came from past clients. It’s something I’m proud of.

I can sympathize with my client’s shock of an expensive repair. I felt so bad for them. It’s not the ideal situation, but was the financial burden mine to bear?

I thought about what I had already achieved for them. My partner and I created a strategic business plan. We spent thousands of dollars in marketing this beautiful ranch estate. It was so effective, it attracted several buyers.

Normally ranches in this area take months, even years to sell, but we had willing buyers within weeks and the accepted offer was thousands more than the sellers ever expected.

It wasn’t a lucky break, it was a carefully orchestrated sales plan, and I get paid only if the transaction closes.

Is it always right for me to “chip in” to help out? Or, is my real value in guiding my clients toward a swift resolution to keep the transaction going, avoiding any more payments of mortgage, taxes, insurance, and the routine bills of a ranch that size.

If they had stayed in the home, they would have had to repair it anyway. My job should have been to help them see how selling their home for more than they ever dreamed was a remarkable fete. It paid for the repair and still left them thousands ahead.

But I failed in my communication.

I failed to communicate my value

I often believe we question our value more when we’re paid in large chunks of money rather than step contracts.

My late husband was a screenwriter for television. Once his contract was negotiated, he got paid to start the script, then paid again on the delivery of his first draft, then revisions, and finally, completion. Every step of the way it was easy to see the value and delivery of services.

But unfortunately many sales based businesses are not set up that way. We get paid at the end, if there’s an end.

Sometimes the sale doesn’t happen even when the work on my end has been fulfilled, along with my own dollars spent for marketing. It’s the risk we take in commissioned sales.

That particular transaction forced me to look at developing stronger tools of communication based on truth, clarity, and compassion… without compromising my integrity.

Here’s what I learned…

1. Develop “I’m sorry” awareness.

Once you’re aware of doing it, you’ll never be unaware. I’ve caught myself so many times in simple emails like this one:

“So sorry we can’t see the house you wanted on Thursday. It’s not available for viewing then. Sorry to disappoint you.”

It wasn’t my fault the house was not available! The email made me look weak and way too eager to apologize.

I rewrote the email. “Hi Alan, the house you want to see is not available for viewing on Thursday. Let me know if Wednesday at 10:00 am works for you. Thanks.”

Learning to rephrase those conversations and emails brought new integrity to my business.

Why do we say we’re sorry and eagerly offer to over- apologize?

Subconsciously we’re looking for a way to divert animosity or negative feelings on their part. If we take on the burden, we mistakenly feel we’re aligning ourselves with the client.

It’s an annoying habit and serves no benefit. Once I noticed the difference in how it made me feel about my professionalism, I dropped the behavior. It’s not easy! But, just begin by monitoring your conversations, emails, and communications.

2. If it’s your fault… own it and say “I’m sorry.”

I’ve worked a long time in my industry and I still make mistakes. Every time it catches me by surprise. I used to torment myself and think of all the ways I could dance around it to make excuses.

Not anymore. I discovered by confessing the error and apologizing quickly, it actually forms a stronger bond between me and my clients. And, sometimes it means offering to pay.

We’re human! We make mistakes. Once I’ve said “I’m sorry” and explain what I did and how I’m going to remedy it, I know I’ve upheld my duty to my clients. That relationship is sacred to me.

3. Stop Saying “it’s okay” or “it’s fine” when it’s really not.

Learn how to feel comfortable telling the truth. Saying “it’s okay” doesn’t make the issue go away.

I initiated this principle in my life a few years ago. Truth! When a friend or co-worker lets me down, I find the courage to tell them what I’m really feeling. Not easy for sure!

It goes something like this, when asked if everything is okay: “Well, as a matter of fact, I am not clear on this. Can we find a time to discuss it?”

It gives them an opportunity to respond, and hopefully clear the air quickly. When you ignore your feelings, it causes resentment to build.

Sometimes I’ve discovered the issue wasn’t what I thought it was… what a nice surprise. If I had chosen to hold it in, or not address it at all, it could have festered inside of me for a long time.

Consider the other person’s feelings. They might be going through a tough time and not even be aware they were disappointing you. Give them a chance to explain.

Sometimes getting it out in the open is all you need to do to resolve it. Then, set it aside and move on.

4. Learn to apologize in a meaningful way.

If there’s something you’ve done wrong, immediately tell the truth and genuinely apologize.

Learn how to effectively say you’re sorry. It’s a tough one. Sometimes, when we say “sorry” it’s quick and abrasive. It carries no meaning at all. Wait until your head and your heart are ready to say it.

Learning to do this benefits your personal and your professional life. It establishes trust and respect.

If it’s an apology with a family member or close friend, sometimes a touch of the hand or a warm embrace is more natural than using words. But don’t short change the experience. Verbalize it too.

5. Discover the power of “no.”

It’s okay to say no and turn down invitations or obligations when you just don’t feel like it.

Being a willing party guest is whole lot more fun than resentfully attending. I stopped adding “guilt” to my choices and learned to be ready with an answer.

Here are some replies that will either say a polite “no” or buy you time to decide how you’re really feeling.

Ways to say “no.”

1. I can’t give you an answer right now, I’ll check back with you.

2. I’m not able to commit to that at this moment.

3. I really appreciate you asking me, but I won’t be able to attend.

4. I understand you really need my help, but I’m not able to say yes right now.

5. I’m going to say no for now, but I’ll let you know if something changes.

6. I’m honored that you would ask me, but I have to say no.

7. Under different circumstances, I’d love to, but right now I can’t.

Nowhere in this list does it say “I’m sorry!”

Recognize that people ask you because they value you. The choice is yours, and you don’t need to apologize for it but acknowledge the offer with gratitude.

Direct contact is always better than an email or text. Take the time to make that call personally.

But there are times…

There are definite times when “I’m sorry” is the only response. If you’ve done something wrong… apologize. The longer you wait, the harder it is to say the words in a meaningful way.

There’s a saying I’ve heard about personal relationships: would you rather be right or be happy?

What a controversial saying. It implies you can’t be right and happy at the same time. In retrospect, I realize relationships are often a series of daily decisions that sometimes include the right to compromise.

It’s also the right of your partner to be fully heard. When you’re sure you’re so right, do you stop listening?

Being present for the one you are with is an art.

Really being present to the one you are with is an art, not easily managed in such a complicated world; our distractions from our phones, emails, traffic… all of it takes us away from really listening.

My late husband and I had a great 26-year marriage, but it could have been so much better.

I distinctly remember times when it felt really terrible to have been “so right.”

I wish it hadn’t been so hard to say “I’m sorry” when I was younger. Those two words could have diffused many situations that were just moments of immaturity and low self-esteem.

The gift of reflection can make your future better.

I can look back on that marriage and appreciate the gifts it gave me… my children, a wonderful life, and the gift of reflection and wisdom I take with me into my new life.

Now, I’m fortunate to have another love in my life where I can practice the art of being present and saying “I’m sorry.”

Keep your interactions and .

It takes learning a new way of thinking and a new way of reacting. This practice quickly diffuses resentments. It keeps your interactions with others real and honest. It allows business relationships and friendships to flourish even when you have a difference of opinion.

Knowing when to use “I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” “no,” and when to allow the other person to be right is a gift you can give yourself and those you love.

Watch how it changes the quality of your life from this point forward.

This post was previously published on and is republished here with permission from the author.

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