It didn’t take long for me to embarrass myself in public after moving to New York City in my early 20s. I was a naive but curious kid from Idaho, and I had a few lessons to learn about myself, the world, and social grace.
An important one came at the end of a talk I gave at a startup meet-up in Manhattan. After I’d finished, a woman approached me from the back of the room. She smiled, and thanked me for my talk. “You seem like a really nice guy,” she said, “and you probably didn’t mean it, but I wanted to tell you that it’s probably not a good idea to use the word ‘retarded’ in a setting like this.”
At some point during the Q&A, I had indeed referred to some thing or practice (I forget what exactly) with that term. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might not be okay to say–it was just part of my vocabulary.
My initial reaction was to protest. But something about the way the woman delivered her message held me back from jumping in. Then she added, lowering her voice a measure, “There was a disabled gentleman sitting in the back of the room during your talk. I don’t want you to feel bad, but wanted to tell you.”
I was horrified.
Not only had I exposed a social blind spot of mine, somebody might have been hurt by my words. I thanked her, and resolved to never make this mistake again.
I can imagine (with fresh horror) how this situation might’ve unfolded had it occurred today and in a different context–like Facebook or Twitter, say: Accusation on one side, defensiveness on the other. Finger pointing, then name calling. I yell something about “political correctness” at the same time someone else types “TRUMP SUPPORTER” in all caps, which then sends me into a rage because YOU DON’T KNOW ME!
But instead, to my still-undiminished gratitude, everyone remained calm. And the person who confronted me totally changed my thinking.
When You Call Somebody Out
In his 2002 book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni describes “trust” in a peculiar way. Most of us think of trust as our belief that someone will do something they’ve committed to. But Lencioni advocates for something a bit more noble: “Trust is the confidence,” he writes, “that their peers’ intentions are good.” It’s not about the follow-through, it’s about the intent, irrespective of the outcome. This, I’ve decided, makes the difference not just in teamwork but in any situation where someone has said the wrong thing. And Lencioni’s point applies to all parties, not just the person who misspoke.
When someone says something that hurts us–or potentially hurts someone else–we have a choice: Give that person feedback, or stay quiet. There are plenty of valid reasons to do either, of course, but if we want to say something, then the way we deliver our message matters a great deal.
“If your ultimate goal is to get them to hear you, the best way to speak is in a way that makes them less defensive,” says Amber Madison, a diversity and inclusion expert and founder of Peoplism as well as a Fast Company contributor. “This is straight out of couples therapy 101.” To give feedback that’s constructive, Madison says to follow these four steps:
- Take a deep breath.
- Start the conversation by expressing trust in the other person’s intentions–again, even if you don’t know precisely what they consist of: “I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by this . . . “
- Use “I” statements. Frame things around what you think and feel, rather than around who they are, what they think, or what you think they think.
- Remember that it’s their choice how they want to speak and act, so don’t try to force them to change. You are simply giving them feedback.
This works well in cases when the person didn’t seem to intend great harm; it’s not a good solution for flagrant offenders who are trying to hurt people. But in most situations involving potentially offensive language–in life no less than the workplace–we’re often dealing with smaller infractions.
Crucially, the woman who approached me to correct my word choice didn’t come in guns blazing. She assumed that I meant no harm. That benefit of the doubt was a gift, to be sure, but it was also an invitation to learn something: “You seem like a really nice guy, and you probably didn’t mean it.” She gave me a way to live with myself, to hear her feedback without it wounding my ego so badly as to make me put a wall up against her.
To be sure, it’s not incumbent upon people who are offended by hurtful language, especially those who encounter it disproportionately, to protect the egos of those who use it. Nor is it their duty to patiently instruct others in the error of their ways–to do the often thankless and sometimes traumatic work of building cultural understanding. That’s all the more reason for my gratitude for the woman’s decision to correct me. The words had already left my mouth. The gentleman she was referring to was on his way out the door. But I could still change. And because of the way she talked to me, I did.
I still make linguistic mistakes, and I still have blind spots. But now I try to imagine what it must be like to hear a term for the 1,000th time before I say something that might be offensive. More importantly, I try to be a little more trusting in other people’s intentions when I hear them say things I don’t like.
When You Get Called Out Yourself
“It is a reality that you are going to say something offensive at some point to someone else,” Madison says. “What’s important is how you bounce back from that.” When we find ourselves on the receiving end of a correction–even if we didn’t mean it–Madison advises the following:
- Take a breath and remember that it takes guts to speak up and say something–especially if it’s a workplace and especially where you have more power than the other person.
- Listen to everything they have to say without jumping in.
- When you respond, use “I” statements. Don’t put it back on the other person. (“You’re overreacting!” or “You’re taking this the wrong way!” etc.)
- Step back, outside of your own ego for a minute, and be curious. For example, you could say, “Oh! I didn’t know that. Do you feel comfortable telling me what the history of this word is, or why what I said was inappropriate? I’d like to learn.”
- No matter what the person’s motivation or delivery method, remember that they are, in a sense, going out of their way to help you be a less offensive person.
It’s easy to rush to the defense that you’re just expressing an opinion of “being yourself” when confronted with an objection to something you’ve said. That’s natural, but ultimately a poor argument.
“Yes, totally, be yourself!” says Madison. “But if being yourself is being someone who doesn’t give a shit about people’s feelings–if that’s who you are, then okay.” The reality, she adds, is that most people “want to be themselves with the caveat that they’re not hurting people and pushing them away. They want to be someone that people want to be around.”
Comedian Judah Friedlander recently told me about how early in his career someone came up after a show and said, in reference to a particularly distasteful joke, “I love you. But drop that bit.” He took the advice, and used it as a model for how he gives feedback now, too.
“With social media, it’s become all about destroying people,” Friedlander says. “But many people don’t want to be doing bad things. If they find out they did something that wasn’t cool, they want to know about it and improve and get better.”
“If we don’t trust one another,” Lencioni writes, “then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict.” Trust doesn’t eliminate conflict, which we in fact need. The constructive kind, anyway–the kind that changes minds.