It’s natural to feel angry when someone says or writes something that we find offensive. Lashing out may feel satisfying in the moment. But if our goal is actually to change the person’s mind or get them to reconsider their approach, assailing their intentions or labeling them (an idiot, a classist, a narcissist, etc.) is often counterproductive.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally gotten emails from newsletter readers upbraiding me for various reasons. One woman, reacting to a reference to “recent business travel” shortly after the pandemic began, declared my email to be “insensitive and harmful . . . You should be ashamed of yourself. This email offends me.”
Another, angry that I cited an example of someone’s boss yelling at them as a “setback,” declared that my writing reeked of “first world, white-privilege traumas.” When people feel offended—whatever the cause—they may not always be polite.
One reader who wrote to me recently, however, was so thoughtful and deft in her critique, I was inspired to parse it and examine exactly what she did. With her permission, I’m excerpting diversity consultant Theresa Kneebone’s message to me.
It exemplifies three lessons we can all learn about how to communicate more effectively when our goal isn’t simply to express outrage, but instead to challenge someone’s thinking effectively.
Don’t assume intent
One of the fastest ways to alienate people is to insist that you know what they really meant, i.e., “You said X, which means you’re obviously Y.” But of course, we don’t have perfect windows into other people’s consciousness. Theresa’s note started not with an accusation, but with an ask for clarification. “When I got this message, I felt confused,” she wrote. She went on to say, “I felt I must have missed something and didn’t want to misread what you are trying to say.” It’s much easier to engage with someone who is asking genuine clarifying questions, rather than imputing motives to you.
Express understanding for the person’s situation
If you’re feeling offended, empathy for the person causing it is probably not your first impulse. But it’s far easier to reach someone if they feel you understand where they’re coming from, or why they felt their action was appropriate at the time. As Theresa wrote to me, “I know in these times, it is difficult to say the ‘right thing’ and that not everyone feels they want to speak out on a topic that is not their area of expertise.” That’s essentially a signaling mechanism that shows others they’re not going to be derided, but instead that you can have a true conversation.
Explain why the conversation matters
It’s easy to dismiss criticism as the carping of a few outliers with an agenda. So if you want to be heard, you need to explain why the issue actually is significant, ideally in terms they will understand and appreciate. As Theresa wrote to me, “I often coach executives that in the absence of a clear, transparent message from them, employees, colleagues and clients will create their own narrative out of the information they can glean or observe. I fear that is what is happening here.”
Note her subtle use of social proof here as well, in which she mentions that she coaches executives. She’s making it clear that she’s not just a random person with an opinion, but an expert in her field. The more credentials you can marshal (if the person is not already aware of them), the better.
When you’re the one being critiqued, it can be hard to hear, especially if the person delivering it seems outraged. “I teach a lot of diversity and inclusion classes,” Theresa says, “and in that context, when we talk about feedback, people can get very hung up on the approach as a way of qualifying how seriously they will take the feedback—’Too angry’ or ‘Too emotional’ or ‘Rude.’ I coach them not to miss the meaning because they are focused on the ‘who’ and the ‘how.’ Not everyone is able to deliver perfect feedback when feeling angry or hurt.”
She’s right, of course. Even someone angry may have a useful and valid perspective we can learn from. But—truth be told—if someone I don’t know well, and whose opinion I haven’t asked for, starts to berate me, my response isn’t to listen politely. It’s to crush them. I suspect I’m not alone.
If you actually want to share your perspective in a way that gets heard, and acted upon to create positive change, the three strategies above are some of the most effective I’ve seen.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Stand Out self-assessment.