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Never "Say I'm So Sorry"?

As everyone's work situation has been turned upside down scenes like this have become common place.

Despite our best efforts to find a quiet place to conduct our call family, dogs, construction, etc... Have come to be an omni-present worry. We hear a lot about things like Zoom fatigue from being "on" all day for the camera. It only gets worse when there is the potential at any time for your toddler to blast in on you, or you have some stir crazy teenagers suddenly blast off in the room across the hall.

I've been working from home for 12 years, from the time I had toddlers in the house to now with two sequestered college students. I've been fortunate enough to have at least a rudimentary office most of that time, or at least a place to put the kids while on a call.

Despite that luxury I've had my share of photo bombs and external disturbances. The embarrassment and shame that came with those disturbances was a real and powerful force against me in the meeting. The emotional response kicked in fight or flight chemicals that put me on edge and generally distracted me from the subject at hand. Those feelings drove an immediate apology for the interruption..."I'm so sorry."

After months of lock down and close quarters with four other people and three cats I've come to realize that's not really the right response. I'm not saying we should be rude, flippant, or dismissive of the real impact external disturbances have on our presentations. But "I'm so sorry." is predicated on the idea that "I" did something. When most of the time there was nothing more, "I" could have done to avoid the situation. "I" didn't do anything to apologize for, the interruption was beyond "my" control and now "we", the meeting participants, have to recover where we left off.

There is another aspect of "I'm so sorry" that's a little more subtle. "I'm so sorry" puts the focus on you and how you are feeling. You are already the center of attention. All eyes were already focused on you before the photo bomb, or the disaster off screen. Now, the fear is the audience is no longer focused on your presentation and instead on your character. Quite frankly you are hoping by saying "I'm so sorry" it might get you enough grace to have the focus get back to the presentation.

But it really doesn't. Saying "I'm so sorry" in that context actually drives the focus more on you and leads to thoughts of what you might have done better to avoid the situation.

If my readers are being honest, they've been in that call when right after someone else's "I'm so sorry" the first thing to come to mind was:

"yah you should be"

"can't you plan better"

"why don't you lock your door?"

The last thing you want to do in this situation is incite those kinds of thoughts and feelings.

I'm in sales and spend my life presenting to others and teaching them about my products. One of the first things I learned in sales training is, successful sales is all about the customer. Every communication, meeting, and conversation should be putting the customer and their interests first. Quite frankly effective, ethical sales is focused on meeting the customer's needs at a price you can afford to give. In the case of the meeting bomb the single best thing that can happen to the conversation is refocusing on the other people on the call. So instead of saying, "I'm so sorry", say

"I appreciate your patience with this interruption."

"I am so grateful of your understanding during these difficult times."

"Thank you for waiting while I addressed..."

These phrases or one like them does three important things:

  1. It acknowledges the interruption in a direct and straight forward way. You aren't trying somehow to ignore the situation or act like it didn't happen. It did happen, and now everyone is in a position where they must recollect their thoughts and refocus on the issue at hand.

  2. It focuses on the other attendees’ grace and charity, rather than implying you personally were responsible for circumstances outside your control. These words tell the other people that you genuinely respect them as collaborators while not demeaning yourself unnecessarily.

  3. It helps diffuse the fight or flight response by activating the gratitude part of your brain. I'm not a neuroscientist or a psychologist, but I've learned a lot of interesting things about how humans are wired. One of the ways to overcome anxiety and depression is to spend time with others around the campfire so to speak, and to express your gratitude. Gratitude is a huge antidote to the negative effects of the stress chemicals generated during the interruption. This helps you quickly wind down from the stress that's been suddenly thrust upon you.

In closing, as we think about the current crisis there are very few people who haven't had a huge interruption in at least one online meeting that was outside their control. In a lot of ways, we all are in this together. Rather than apologizing for an imperfect world we don't control, focus on being grateful for our collaborator's grace and charity.

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