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Get Off Your “Sorry, But...”

Okay, I’m sorry about the title, but... there’s something terribly wrong with any communication that begins with, “I’m sorry, but…”.

We’ve all said it before, and for some of us, so often that we don’t even hear ourselves anymore. Yet this seemingly innocuous phrase only serves to damage relationships and more deeply entrench any conflict we’re attempting to resolve.

“Sorry, but…”, along with its kissing cousin, “yeah, but…”, offer only shorthand concessions without any substance. Both are far more dismissive than they are disarming. They contain nothing to convey specifically what we feel sorry about, or agree with. Instead, the follow-on “but” dominates the message, minimizing or completely annihilating the validity of whatever prompted our response in the first place. Consider, for example, these responses:

"Sorry, but traffic was horrendous..."

"Sorry, but my boss had me stuck in a meeting..."

"Yeah, but wait until you’re all grown up and you realize what life’s really like!"

Seriously, we might as well lead instead with, “It’s not my fault”, or “You're not that important”, or “You’re completely delusional.” Any one of these would be far more honest, and yet we don’t say those things. Why? Because it would be rude. We know better than so blatantly to dismiss another’s experience, value or point of view. So we throw in a patronizing “sorry” or “yeah”, driven perhaps subconsciously by the echos of our parent’s pleas to “be nice.” In fact, it’s not at all nice to say “sorry” or “yeah” when neither is genuinely what we feel or think. It’s still rude.

But what if we actually do feel empathy? Or what if there’s something with which we actually do agree? When either is true – and generally one is – throwing off a quick “sorry” or “yeah” doesn't suffice. Neither adequately conveys empathy or agreement. In order to do that, we have to slow down enough to find and express the words that convey our true sentiments.

In the case of “sorry, but…”, what is it specifically that we’re sorry about? What would we have done differently if we could? What might we change in the future to acknowledge the inconvenience or the pain we have caused? If we’ve done nothing wrong at all, how can we express the empathy we genuinely feel for the other’s plight?

Or in the case of “yeah, but…”, what is it specifically that we’re in agreement with? Is it one or two points that the person has made? Do we agree with their longer term objectives, even though we disagree with their immediate strategy? Or can we notice and appreciate their passion before we move on to question the wisdom of their beliefs?

Intuitively, as soon as we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, it’s clear that our quick “sorry” or “yeah” can’t possibly communicate the answers to these deeper questions. So then why are we in such a hurry to show our “buts”? Sorry, but... I'll leave that question for you to ponder.


Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.

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