What to do if you offend!

This post first appeared on Adam Smith Blog.

Offending someone happens invisibly but it has very visible side effects. Practicing how not to be offended is step one. What to do when you offend another is step two. If you offend, you have the responsibility to try to reconcile. Before that can happen you have to understand the nature of emotions. Most likely the offended party has a personal attachment to whatever was said or done. Though we can't turn ourselves into someone's therapist and attempt to solve their issues, we can act with care, professionalism, and great communication skills.

How to respond if you offend

1. Make sure you understand.
This is where good communicators pull out their tools. Asking open questions, using reflective listening for instance to ascertain if offense actually happened. If you ask out right, ‘Did I offend you?’, most won’t admit it even if it occurred.

Ex. “Joe, I noticed that after I said that, you push away from the table and crossed your arms. Is there something going on?"

2. Engage the offended in dialogue to gain understanding.
Modify your tone of voice so you aren’t accusing and aren’t escalating the conflict. Invite the person into dialogue. Recognize that it is up to him or her to accept your invitation or not. They may need to calm down before engaging with you. Allow them time to do that.

Ex. Joe might come back and say “Yeah, I didn’t appreciate the way you called me out like that in front of everyone.”

3. Make sure you understand…again!
Before you jump to an apology, or start defending yourself, dissect what he said. Use the words, the tone of voice, and the message he isn’t saying.

Ex. “So you are upset even angry at me because it looked like I embarrassed you in front of your team?”

Offense is always about emotion so identify the emotion that might be fueling the speaker. Then allow him or her to affirm or correct it.

If you got it right, Joe might say “Darn, right! You could have pulled me aside and told me in private.”

If you got it wrong, Joe might say, "No, I wasn't embarrassed, I thought it was disrespectful."

Notice who is doing the correcting in these examples: Joe, the offended party. He is clarifying, you are understanding.

4. Apologize if it is necessary.
After you have checked for understanding, an apology is more likely to be received. Apologize for the part you played, not out of automation. We tend to offer apologies when we really aren't sorry at all. Don't! It cheapens the worth of a genuine apology.

Example “Joe, you know what, you’re right. I apologize for addressing this issue in front of everyone. Next time, I will talk to you privately first.”

NOTE: “I am sorry you got offended” is a not an apology. It actually escalates offense rather than deescalates the conflict. It is like telling the offended party, "you got issues. Get over it."

Even if it is their issue to work out, you can help them travel the road of healthy communication tactics by being the example you want to see. If you are a leader, that is crucial.

5. Offer your side of things.
We tend to skip over #1-4 and go straight to defending our behavior. DON’T. Even if you have no fault whatsoever, the offended party will NOT hear or process what you say until you verbally acknowledge them and help them de-stress from the fight and flight phenomena that has happened in their body.

6. ___________

Good communicators are savvy in their techniques and respectful of all parties involved...even when they don’t agree. I'd like to make an important caveat here:
You can be the best communicator in the world but that does not guarantee you won't offend someone.

When you offend, you are responsible to act with integrity and personal responsibility. 

Number 6 is blank, how do you respond if you offend?

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