How many times have you heard a comment that struck you as disrespectful or offensive, and you didn’t respond? Maybe you didn’t know the other person, and felt too awkward to comment. Maybe you just weren’t sure you wanted to wade into the issue. Many of us (myself included) have opted not to comment, because we are afraid of the consequences or are unsure of what to say.

You don’t have to confront every piece of communication with which you don’t agree. When should you engage, having heard what you feel is a demeaning remark?

When it offends you. This may be obvious, but sometimes we think, “maybe I’m being too sensitive.” That’s usually just a way of avoiding the issue. If you find the remark offensive, that’s grounds enough to comment on it. You don’t need a panel of experts backing you up.

When the comment is made within your conversation. Overhearing a rude outburst from afar might give you a free pass. However, if someone makes an offensive remark in the context of your discussion, you can and should respond. Even if the words weren’t directed at you, it is still important to weigh in.

When you know the person. Strangers behaving badly may benefit from some type of intervention. Friends and colleagues definitely would. The difference here is your ability to influence their thinking and behavior. You owe it to the other person to bring the matter to their attention.

When you have the power. Let’s face it. There are some people who are in a much better position to confront distasteful speech. Leaders must role model the standards of the organization and confront those who disregard those standards. The implicit message when you say nothing is to approve.

When you know you should weigh in, how can you do so in a way that is maximally constructive?

Be brief. There is no need to launch into a protracted speech on the distasteful statement. Get to the point. “I found the term “fairy” to be offensive,” for example.

Stay focused on observable behavior. Resist the urge to extrapolate and comment on the person’s attitude or beliefs. “You used the word “girl” to refer to a grown woman.” Leave out your personal opinion that the person is a sexist.

Be willing to educate. Often people are operating out of ignorance and do not intend to be disrespectful. Assume that this is the case, until proven otherwise. A comment like, “that term has negative connotation you may not be aware of,” may pave the way to increased awareness.

State your feelings. After you’ve named the behavior, it is more than appropriate to state how you felt about it. “I felt offended [hurt] [angry].” This will help the other individual understand your true perspective and the impact of his behavior.

Be respectful and loving. It might seem strange to respond with care to a person who has said something you found repugnant. However, don’t give in to your urge to demean the speaker. Doing so would only inflame the situation, and may cause the other person to shut down and stop listening. Remember that your goal is to promote and model respectful communication; you won’t do that if you respond angrily.

Remain firm in your feedback. “Hey, lighten up,” can be a common response to being confronted. Simply stated, offensive speech is not trivial. At work, it can be illegal or at least highly disruptive. Your feedback is valid, regardless of the other person’s receptivity (or lack thereof).

Report abuse or discrimination. Persons who are verbally abusive or practice discrimination have no place in your organization. Take action, either yourself or by reporting such behavior to the person’s boss.

Part of our responsibility as human beings is to preserve the dignity of others. Caring enough to speak the truth is not always easy. It is, however, one of the most important things we can do. It may not feel that way at the time, but refuting objectionable comments is a courtesy we extend to the speaker. Giving difficult feedback means, “I care about you too much to let this go.”


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