Whether you’re following politics or watching reality TV, you’ll likely agree that political correctness is on its death bed. There was a time when being respectful toward others was a priority. But it seems that people who weren’t genuinely respectful, began to feel inconvenienced and resentful of their having to pretend. Somehow, we then let them convince us that we should value their authenticity more than we demand their respect and so here we are…
In the name of others “keeping it real,” or “just making a joke,” we are now somehow expected to “stop being so sensitive.” We’re expected to look the other way when someone says something insulting and prove to the world what “great sports” we are by simply brushing it off our shoulders. It made you sad, angry, uncomfortable? You feel diminished, misunderstood, disillusioned? Too bad. Suck it up. Soothe your aching soul with the knowledge that, "he didn't mean it that way" or "she was just kidding.”
In some ways, I can almost understand the impulse. No one wants to feel that they’ll be hanged for inadvertently hurting someone else’s feelings. There’s so much we don’t know about one another and offending someone can be so easily and unintentionally accomplished. We want to enjoy conversations free from the stress and tension of censorship. I get it. That does not, however, translate to reckless abandon in our interactions with other human beings. Why haven’t we been able to strike a balance between disingenuous politically correct rhetoric and outright offensive nastiness?
It’s gotten to the point where you’re shamed for even confronting it. You bring it up and you’re made to feel like you’re just “making a big deal out of nothing.” So, it’s easier to ignore it. After all, you don't want to be seen as a person "who takes herself too seriously" or "the guy who can't take a joke". You don't want to feel like people will stop “being themselves” around you. You don't want people to be uncomfortable around you and you certainly don't want people to stop wanting to be around you.
In some instances, we’re talking about your friends, family, colleagues, etc. You don't want to start thinking of them as “bad” people. You don’t want to acknowledge in your spirit that they have said something mean-spirited. Better to make as if it didn’t happen. Boy have I been there.
As a woman of color, I have been in multiple of these situations and experienced many awkward and uncomfortable conversations. A sexist comment is made. A racist joke is told. Someone buys into a stereotype or takes their cultural curiosity too far. I’ve pretty much heard it all. And while I've never been one for keeping my mouth shut simply to avoid confrontation, I have had to learn to address things productively. How, you ask.
As best I can, I employ an approach that I learned in mediation training in 2004: sensitive accountability. It is often a focus of my communication work with clients and I share it here with you.
Most people swing between attacking and defending. But it is possible and healthy, to be compassionate of another person and still request that they modify their behavior. You can hold people accountable in a way that is sensitive. You do not have to sacrifice one for the other.
In the case of addressing offensive comments or behavior, I suggest that sensitive accountability be applied in the following way:
1. Breathe through it – Defuse any of your negative energy around it, before engaging in a discussion about it.
2. Process it – Think through what the comment or behavior means to you; how it may have been meant; what harm it has the potential to do; how it can be best neutralized; etc.
3. Address it – Ask to speak with whoever said or did it, in private. Do so quickly, but not in a way that is reactive. Give yourself a moment to understand why you were offended and be clear on what you need as a result.
4. Teach without condemning – No matter how uncomfortable, these are great teachable moments. Often, these things result more from ignorance than malice. Take the time to explain why you were offended. If you attack, the person will be too busy defending themselves to listen or learn. So, try approaching it from the perspective of, “we live in a society that encourages that sort of thing but I think it’s important that you know why I was offended and why others might feel the same.”
5. Ask for what you need – Consider how the person could help restore what was broken. For instance, if what was damaged was respect, what could you ask the person to say/do to help fix that moving forward.
6. Let it go – Holding on to your feelings about the incident will only keep you bitter inside. I am not suggesting that you forget about it, or “just get over it.” I am suggesting that after you have addressed it, you take away any power that it has over your mood. You also want to allow the other person the space to grow from this and not hold them hostage to your anger.
Now, let’s be clear, even the most sensitive of us manage to offend people from time to time. I have put my foot in my mouth on countless occasions, due to my ignorance, arrogance or carelessness. So, if you should so happen to be the person that committed the offense:
1. Hear the other person’s grievance – Really be in the moment as they share their experience. Take in the fullness of what they say.
2. Apologize immediately – Don’t get wrapped up in explaining your intention, rationalizing your position or justifying your actions in any way, unless you are asked to do so.
3. Admit your ignorance – A simple validating sentence can go a long way. Be willing to say, “I wasn’t thinking” or “that was insensitive of me.”
4. Forgive yourself – It does no one any good for you to beat yourself up afterward. There is no turning back the clock. Own that you offended someone. Learn from the incident. Grow.
5. Be more mindful – Moving forward, take greater care to consider the positions and emotions of others. You don’t have to walk on eggshells, but maybe just watch where you step.