Managing Difficult Conversations: How to Respond When Someone Says You've Said Something Hurtful

Funny vs. Not Funny

Recently, on a professional listserv, someone posted a joke that a number of people found offensive. As the flood of responses filtered through, the listserv became divided. Some were disturbed to see the joke posted in a professional forum. Others defended the joke and the joker. As the conversation evolved, it became clear that the sender had knowingly posted the joke, that she thought it was funny, and now she felt hurt and misrepresented by those who found it offensive.

Well, there we were.

That was racist!

The thread brought to mind one of my favorite web videos called “How to Tell People They Sound Racist.” The video provides a model for how to talk to people when they’ve said something offensive and how to bring the focus to what was said rather than the speaker’s intentions.

While reading the exchanges on the e-mail list, I started to realize how much more useful it would be to have guidelines for how to respond when someone tells you that you’ve said something racist or otherwise offensive. This is an even harder task, and it’s where many of us probably need the most help.

Think of it this way: If someone tells you that you stepped on their foot, you don’t usually say, “How dare you think I’m someone who goes around stomping on feet! I’m offended that you would make such a negative assessment of my character!”

Of course, not. That would be ridiculous. Instead, most people say, “Oops! I’m so sorry!”

Why then, is it so difficult to respond in this fashion when someone says we’ve said something racist, offensive, or just plain hurtful?

Deconstructing difficult conversations

I see couples who struggle with this very problem on a much smaller scale. Let’s take the racist and offensive part out of it: two people come to my office trying to be heard, messages are getting misinterpreted, and both partners wind up frustrated, sad, or angered by these failures to connect. Maybe they want to give up entirely.

I do a lot of work with couples about communicating their feelings in conflict and how to respond in ways that help each of them get heard. Oftentimes, this means separating an accusation from the expression of hurt feelings. Sometimes one partner hears that blame even when the first partner hasn’t made any accusation. We work on restructuring a better interaction, slowing communication down, and tracking where and how it went off the rails.

Private vs. Public

I can think of few circumstances more challenging than being told you’ve said something hurtful or offensive to another person (other than perhaps having to be the one to bring up the hurt in the first place) even in private. So imagine how this challenge can be even more compounded if you’re told you’ve said something hurtful to an entire group, it’s in public, and it’s a professional setting with an audience of hundreds.

Yikes. Talk about a context for a difficult conversation!

The most natural thing to do in such a situation is to defend yourself and explain your intention. This is the “You should not have been offended by what I said and here’s why….” tactic. It feels right because most of us don’t intend to hurt other people, so it feels true. But….it misses the point.

A better alternative

If I’m ever in such a situation, what I hope to do would look a lot like what I try to do in smaller scale conversations and what I try to teach my couples to do: offer a validating response. This includes acknowledging the hurt or offense (even when you don’t necessarily agree that it should have hurt), recognizing why it may have been hurtful, and then — if you can muster it — expressing some appreciation to the person for letting you know and for educating you.

Try these steps:

1. Breathe
2. Acknowledge the hurt and offer validation.
3. Show appreciation to the person for letting you know.

Here is what that could look like: “Oh my, I can see how that sounded awful. I can imagine it hurt your feelings and maybe the feelings of others who heard it as well. I’m glad you brought it to my attention so I can be more sensitive in the future. Thank you for gently teaching me something here.”

These things typically should come before you explain where you were coming from. If you’ve conveyed an interest in hearing how you affected the other person, they are far more likely to be interested in hearing what you meant to say. Of course, all of this is much easier to imagine when you’re outside of such a conversation!

When we are in these conversations, we feel attacked. Or embarrassed. We defend. We forget to breathe. We get lost.

Give yourself (and others) a break

Take a moment to consider how much grace it takes to pause, reflect, breathe, and respond in ways that promote and preserve goodwill and understanding. Make an effort to try to bring this into your next difficult conversation. These are the conversations that could happen and that need to happen, both in one-on-one conversations and on a collective level.

Practice makes perfect

Remember that these skills can be learned and improved upon and they do get easier with practice.

Also conversations and relationships are ongoing. If you think you messed up a conversation that could have gone better, that doesn’t mean it’s over and gone forever. Try asking for a do-over. Or notice that you didn’t respond the way you would have liked and say you want to go back and say what you think you left out.

Most people are happy for the opportunity to feel better and this is a great way to show that you really care and you’re making an effort.