– why you should stop apologizing, according to science

 Ever been in an instructional session (e.g. spin, spanish, yoga, or a business meeting), and found yourself in front of someone who just kept apologizing?

Their notes are out of order.
They’re just having “one of those days.”
They can’t get the technology to work.

The person in front of you clearly has a lot to offer. You want to enjoy the experience with them, but their constant apologizing leads to a frustrating experience.

Stop it. Stop apologizing, you want to say as they apologize for the fifth time about the same thing, often about something which is out of their control. You want to enjoy the conversation or the class, but it’s simply not fun when you’re feeling bad for the person leading.

Sorry For Everything

This is where I sometimes find myself as I try to enjoy the torture of a spin class. While the time, day, and fun nature of the instructor are ideal for me, I often put extra effort in, trying to console her, even if just in my mind.

I often want to yell out in the middle of class; “We don’t know the difference. Just do your thing, have fun, and I’m sure we’ll have fun too.”

Thankfully, I don’t say anything, at least not during class. (When I asked her about challenges with music after class one time, I found out that she didn’t know how to create a playlist. To help, I enlisted a friend who is adept at creating playlists).

More Apologies

After spin class, I often take a yoga class with another instructor. She also apologizes relentlessly, letting us know that she can’t demonstrate certain yoga moves because of physical limitations. She apologizes for music issues and the gym’s mistake in double-booking yoga rooms. She apologizes for things that are way beyond her ability to control.

Apologizing When it’s Appropriate

These are not customer-service style apologies. They’re more like a plea to be let off the hook, a hook that we don’t even know she’s trying to be released from. Maybe she’s embarrassed, or worse, ashamed. Either way, it occurred to me that I would have a much better experience in her class if she would just confidently work with what she has.

My Turn To Apologize

Fast-forward two weeks later. I found myself standing in front of a group of CEO’s in Baltimore, Maryland, struggling with my powerpoint.

Noticing myself apologizing, I reflected back to my experience with these two instructors. I thought, these CEOs don’t know where I am in my presentation, or what was supposed to be on that slide.

Refocusing on My Purpose

Remembering how much I had wanted my spin instructor to just have fun, I smiled at how easy it was to get tripped up in apologizing for “mistakes.” Rather than staying caught up in worrying about the ordering of my powerpoint though, I refocused on having fun and engaging them in the content.  

As I watched many of them taking copious notes on my simple process for giving and receiving candid, compassionate feedback, I was deeply grateful for the lesson learned from my spin and yoga instructors. In the meeting with the CEOs, we had fun, laughed a lot, and they walked away with information they “could put to use immediately,” in their organizations, as several of them shared after the presentation.  

They Want To Have Fun And Learn

If you are a presenter, or someone offering a product or service to others, and find yourself apologizing for situational inconveniences, issues related to technology, or other organizational issues in your presentation, remember:

  • They don’t know what your plan was,
  • They’re there to get what you have to offer, and
  • They want to have fun. (They don’t want to feel bad for you).

Also, if it’s a class (of any sort) that you are planning to lead, considering asking yourself the following three questions before you begin:

  1. Am I willing to allow for imperfections?
  2. Do I trust that what I have to offer is good?
  3. Am I ready to have fun?

The next time you’re tempted to apologize when leading a group, take a deep breath and remember that your best is good enough. Later, you can ask yourself if you actually did something wrong.

Save Your Apologies For When They’re Needed

Of course, if you later realize there’s good reason for an apology, you can always follow up. Forget to bring a helpful handout, or end up pushing someone a little too hard? In these situations, a simple apology can strengthen trust and provide an opportunity to gain their perspective.

But if you’re just apologizing for something that happens around or during your presentation, it’s possible that the apology can backfire and plant doubt about your abilities.

Think about the impact you want to have with your apologies, and consider saving “I’m sorry” for moments when it will build trust, rather than erode it.

Here’s to your greatness,

Misti Burmeister

Misti Burmeister has been helping leaders boost engagement and productivity across generations for more than 15 years. Help your team reach its highest potential at