This morning I came across this mum’s relatable experiment with saying “thank you” instead of “sorry”.  It made me really think about what happens when I say “sorry” vs. “thank you”.

My body

What happens to your body when you say “sorry?” Try it out and just notice, without judgement.

For me, if I’m saying “thank you”, I automatically smile. To get the “th” sound out I have to take a nice big breath and fill my brain and lungs with oxygen, which also changes my posture. I’m looking you in the eye and feel I’m almost physically leaning forward reaching out to you and making a tangible connection when I say “thank you”. I also feel like I’m actually giving you something.

On the other hand, when I say “sorry”, I don’t need to breathe to start that hissing sound. My eyes drop, my breath slides away and I actually shrink back and down, drawing away from you.

I really like this lighthearted cartoon illustrating the difference between saying “sorry” and “thank you”, because I can actually see the physical differences. 

My meaning

“Sorry” is saying, “I’ve done something unpleasant to you” and I’m putting us in conflict with each other. I’ve been the aggressor and you are the victim. That doesn’t feel good to either of us, and I know I certainly put up a fight if someone tries to make me the victim of anything. So, ugh, now we’re fighting.

But if I say “thank you”, part of what I’m saying is, “thank you … for being part of my success today… for being part of what’s worked… for being part of the solution.” That’s better, now we’re on the same side. I’m bringing you into my team and we’re winning. The cool thing here is that by saying “thank you”, I’m sharing my power and so we’re growing it – now we’ve both got more.

My brain

While I’m still getting to grips with the neuroscience of conversations, I’ll experiment here as I currently understand it.

Christopher Bergland wrote in Psychology Today, “Holding a grudge against yourself and feeling shame can trigger the same increase in cortisol and decrease in oxytocin as holding a grudge against someone else. Self-forgiveness is just as important as forgiving others.”

When I feel like I need to be apologising, it’s usually when something stressful has happened. Stress particularly hits me when something has challenged my values. Let’s say I’m late to a meeting. That bugs me because I place a huge value on following through on commitments. So I’m upset with myself and experiencing stress and regret. Fears kick in (e.g., I fear I have upset you; I fear your judgement since I let you down), which floods my brain with cortisol. The amygdala part of my brain takes over and now I’m in survival mode.

By choosing not to beat myself up, and by choosing to say “thank you” I can change that cycle, which changes how I come across to you. With “thank you”, my focus is on you, not me. I’m also using language that suggests to you how I’d like us to feel: patient, understanding, helpful. By involving you in actively being part of the experience, I’m producing oxytocin and bringing that into our conversation.

Next time…

The next time you’re late to a meeting or need to change a plan at the last minute, try saying, “Thanks for your patience” or “thank you for your flexibility”. Next time you forget your kid’s shorts for his after-school football club, try, “Thanks for understanding.” Yes, these scenarios happened in my life this week, and starting with “thank you” tangibly changed the rest of each of those interactions, drew a line under the past, and moved us forward together into the next step.

What happens when you say “thank you” instead of “sorry”?