All day every day, people accidentally offend each other. If you slip easily into defensiveness whenever someone accidentally offends you, life becomes like old Dodge City on a bad day.
Most of us can think of an offensive comment that stung for a long time. Handling such moments when they occur requires communication versatility. A good sense of humor can come in handy. But most important is determining whether you’ve been accidentally offended or purposely insulted.
A friend shared with me a comment made years ago that still brings pain when she thinks about it. If she’d been thinking about the difference between offense and insult, my friend might have asked, “What did you mean by that?” Instead she paid a high, long-term price.
Separating offense from insult is critical to effective communication and to maintaining relationships. It tells us how to respond. An insult is a purposeful attempt to make someone feel or look bad – or both. One way to tell if you’ve been accidentally offended or purposefully insulted is to inform the person who upset you that you did not appreciate his remark. If he does it again, then you’ve been insulted, and that calls for a stronger response than accidental offense typically merits.
By letting someone know that you’ve taken offense to something said, you engage in a very useful communication strategy: giving someone the opportunity to do the right thing. This is an underutilized strategy with extraordinary power exactly because it is so infrequently applied.
The natural response to being offended is to defend oneself. But conversations are building blocks of relationships and if you want to keep a relationship, it’s wise to give people the benefit of the doubt now and then.
Even when relationship duration doesn’t seem important, it’s good practice to separate offense from insult. The best negotiators do this. They realize that being derailed by an errant comment is a good way to undermine their preparation and goals. Separating offense from insult is, in this sense, a two-for-one communication strategy. It can save a conversation or relationship from premature failure and it can provide an edge in any negotiation – personal or professional.
When in doubt, why not ask: “Did I take that the way you intended?” See what happens. It just might save a lot of discomfort, distraction and a relationship as well.