Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Tell Someone You’re Offended

Dear Emily,

Our company was recently acquired and I was asked to be on the transition team to merge the two companies. This project required that I work with several members of the parent company throughout the weekend and late into the night. I was trying my best to be chummy and start the relationship on the right foot, but people from the new company spent much of our time together making crude, sexual jokes and using very foul language. Not only did it really offend me, but it certainly didn’t feel like appropriate workplace humor or decorum. How can I make it known that I don’t appreciate their humor (or lack thereof) without seeming like a prude or threatening my ability to work with them in the future?

Cautiously Offended

Dear Cautious,

In Crucial Conversations, we teach a concept we call the Fool’s Choice. It is basically this: when we face a crucial conversation (when the stakes are high, our emotions are in play, and there are differences of opinion), we tend to devolve to binary thinking. We assume we can either be honest or respectful. We can be candid or kind. We can stand up for ourselves or roll over.

What I love about your question is that you are rejecting the Fool’s Choice. Sure, you might not know what the third way is, but you know there must be

another way—a way to be candid AND preserve the relationship. For decades, I have watched as people have made the Fool’s Choice and, most commonly, chosen silence. We have all tolerated bad behavior, bad ideas, and bad decisions because we have felt pressured to choose respect or conflict avoidance over honesty. Sadly, when we’ve done so, we’ve failed to recognize that we don’t actually have to make that choice. More often than not, we literally can have it both ways.

Here are some ideas about how to reject the Fool’s Choice and have it both ways.

1. Make it safe . . . for them. Most often, when we think about stepping up to a hard conversation, we think about how hard, scary, or uncomfortable the conversation will be for us and how we can make it better . . . for us. This is natural. No one likes to do scary things (well, mostly no one. There are all those people who go to haunted houses each year). So, we make things less scary. For us.

However, if we want to be successful in our crucial conversations, we have to spend as much time, if not more, thinking about how to make it less scary for the other person. Being told something you did was wrong or offensive is scary, too. And our natural response to scary things is to defend ourselves. So, how can you make it easier or less scary for the offender to hear your message? A good place to start is by sharing your intent. Your positive intent might include:

    • You aren’t bringing up your concern simply to criticize or complain.
    • You like working with this new team, are excited about being part of the new company, and want to learn from them over time.
    • You want to work well with them long-term.
    • Most importantly, you want to talk about issues as they come up, rather than letting them fester.
    • In addition to sharing your perspective, you want to know their views and how they believe the relationship can work well.

2. Assume poor skill, not poor motive. Typically, when someone has done something offensive or disrespectful, behaved poorly, or otherwise violated an expectation we had, we assume it is because of poor motive. They don’t care. They don’t respect me. This is just who they are—disrespectful and uncaring. We make character judgments about people and we do it quickly. If you are going to be successful in this conversation, you need to step back from those judgments. Maybe they think this kind of behavior is okay. Maybe this is how they have always built relationships and rapport with new colleagues. Maybe they don’t know any other way to connect with new people.

Now, I know what you are thinking. No way, everyone knows this kind of behavior is taboo. We have been having annual harassment training for decades now. But let me ask you this—is it possible no one has ever been courageous and kind enough to give them feedback about their behavior in the past? Is it possible others they have worked with have faced this same Fool’s Choice (I can speak up or I can preserve the relationship) and made the choice to stay silent rather than find the third way?

I am surprised by just how often I give feedback to someone on a long-standing behavioral pattern and the response is, “No one has ever said anything before.” Silence is pervasive. And it means people often continue their behavioral patterns simply because they don’t know anything different.

3. Seek others’ perspective. As you consider what to say, you may want to validate your perspective. Check in with your two long-time coworkers. Did they notice the same behaviors? What did they think? It can be helpful, validating, and strengthening to know that others experienced the same thing and see it similarly to you.

At the same time, you don’t need to back away if your coworkers see it differently. Perhaps they experienced the same behavior but it didn’t impact them the same, or it didn’t seem offensive to them. That doesn’t lessen the impact on you or excuse the poor behavior. It just gives you a perspective that is different to consider as you enter the conversation and hopefully helps bring greater understanding of your new coworkers.

4. Invest in relationship-building and connection. You want a good working relationship with these folks. Starting the relationship off with a crucial conversation can be a great way to set a foundation of trust and respect (“You know you can always trust me to be honest and candid with you.”) However, great working relationships need more than just trust and respect. They need fun, humor, enjoyment, technical competence, shared purpose, etc.

Recognize that the start of this relationship has been a bit rocky and look for proactive things you can do to create positive experiences, ideally, immediately. Remember, you are going to tell them they have done something that doesn’t work for you. Make sure in the coming weeks, that you show them how much they do that does work for you.

Best of luck,

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3 thoughts on “How to Tell Someone You’re Offended”

  1. Grace Litak-Jaswinski

    Sorry Emily – long on analysis, short on advice.

  2. Sharon

    I have been in this situation (what woman hasn’t?!!!!) and of all situations, this is the most difficult one to find words to say to the offending party, because of the mix of emotions involved: feeling excluded from the boy’s club, feeling not respected, and the sexual stuff. So there is anger, and judgment of the (extremely rude and thoughtless) offender. Not so easy to just set all that aside to think of ways to make them “feel safe”.. In the past, Crucial Conversations has suggested actual dialogue that could be used in these difficult kinds of conversations. This would be very helpful here. Because really what you want to do is club them.

  3. Tami B

    Great ideas of how to change one’s perspective and what to aim for (e.g. sharing positive intent, assuming the best, etc.). I find that I also struggle with the actual words to say. Examples of that would be helpful.

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