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When You (Accidentally) Offend Someone

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It can feel terrible when you unintentionally offend someone.  It can happen in marriage, with friends, or at work.  It can even happen with people we don’t know well.  It happens to everyone at some point or another.

None of us want to be responsible for someone feeling hurt or angry.  Handled poorly, it creates conflict, guilt, or ill-will for both people involved.  However, if you can use kindness and healthy communication, your mistakes may have the remarkable potential to strengthen your  relationship, particularly if you are able to be gracious and respectful in your approach.

What can you do if you offend someone?

Don’t respond emotionally in return

Staying calm is one of the most important things that you can do.  If you get defensive, or fight back, it will only escalate the conflict and make things worse.  Don’t blame the other person, and don’t tell the other person that they are “over-reacting” or “too sensitive.”  Take a breath and let your body relax.

Although tempting to some, do not ignore the offended person

Many times, our human instincts tell us to avoid things that are difficult or unpleasant.  However, research tells us that the more we avoid conflict, the worse it gets.  If you ignore the person’s feelings, it can breed continued discomfort and awkwardness.  It can also make it more difficult for both of you to move on.

Consider your words

Take responsibility for what you said, and consider the feelings of the other person. Most likely, if the other person is offended, they have some emotional sensitivity to what you said (or what they thought you said).  For example, although you may have been offering help or assistance, the other person may have thought that you were criticizing their work.  Or in another example, you may have thought what you said was witty, but the other person thought you were putting them down.  It will be important for you to consider the other person’s feelings and consider how they may have heard your message.

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Use reflective communication

Clarify what they are feeling by politely asking them.  “It sounds like you think I was disregarding your work, is that right?” Or in another example, “It sounds like you think I was dismissing how hard you worked on that project.”  Then pause and listen.  You will need to use humility, and a willingness to take the other person’s perspective.

If the you or other person is not calm, you may need to give it a little time

Take a few moments, and then approach the other person with empathy and kindness after some time has passed.  However, do not fall into the avoidance trap and never address it.

Apologize if needed, but don’t overdo it

Don’t apologize for your existence.  “I’m sorry, I think we have our wires crossed,” is acceptable.  But, “I’m so sorry – I’m such a terrible person,” makes it about you, and takes away from the apology.  Or in another example, “I’m sorry my words hurt you.  That was not my intention at all,” is a good response.  But, “I’m such a jerk/worthless human-being,” is too much, and not very helpful.  In addition, don’t keep apologizing or repeating asking the other person to forgive you.  Just look them in the eye, kindly apologize, and accept whatever response they give you.

Remember to consider the context

There are lots of reasons why people can feel offended.  Sometimes, people are sensitive to an issue or have received negative feedback before.  Other times, people are going through a hard time that we do not know about. They may be under an incredible amount of stress, and their offense has nothing to do with you.  They may be struggling with other life stressors, or cannot accept imperfection in themselves.  The possibilities are endless.

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Be kind to yourself

Notice your own feelings with kindness. Remind yourself that we all make mistakes or have hurt someone at some time.  It was likely not your intention to offend. Remember that no one and nothing is perfect. Take pride that you are trying to live by your values and correct the misperception as best you can.  Allow the situation to end without guilt and rumination.


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