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7 Dos and 3 Don'ts After You Accidentally Offend Someone

Part 2: Unintentionally antagonize somebody? Here's how to repair the damage.

Key points

  • Never add insult to psychic injury by telling the person you offended: "That really shouldn't have bothered you; you're way too sensitive."
  • Even if you lacked malignant intent or couldn't have realized the person would be offended, apologizing is still appropriate.
  • Empathically identifying with the offendee's fraught experience influences the tone of your response, helping to rectify the damage you caused.
Liza Summer, photographer/Pexels free photo
Source: Liza Summer, photographer/Pexels free photo

Frankly, at one time or another, we've all, however accidentally, caused another psychic pain. And I'll start this piece by suggesting what we should be wary of doing after we've inadvertently antagonized someone.

3 Don'ts in Responding to the Person Offended (the "Offendee")

Here are some things you may be tempted to do upon learning that you've offended another, but that you need to be diligent not to do:

1. Guilt the offended party.

Do not tell them they shouldn't have felt offended. You might say such further upsetting things as "That really shouldn't have bothered you: you're just way too sensitive," or "You're being totally ridiculous! How could my saying that actually offend you?" Regrettably, both of these reactions add insult to the emotional or mental injury the other person has already suffered at your hands.

And the probable outcome is that, if in response to their distress — whether communicated verbally, or through gestures or facial expression — you double down on what felt initially to them as an attack, they're all the more likely to see you as intentionally trying to hurt them.

2. Defensively protest that you meant them no harm.

However understandable it might be to take that stance, any endeavor you make to exonerate yourself runs counter to a compassionate response. Rarely, if ever, will it provide the comfort and reassurance the other person needs. You're also turning the focus back on yourself when what's required is for you to empathize with them and demonstrate a willingness to support their fraught feelings.

3. Ignore their negative reaction to you.

What best explains why conflicts involving offending another don't get resolved is the common impulse to evade conflict — or the fear that whatever you do in the face of it could make it worse. There may be times when a cooling-off period (for the offendee or for both of you) is, indeed, advisable. But, in general, it makes sense to confront as soon as possible the awkward discord now existing between the two of you.

Even if in time the rift (seemingly) blows over, it may yet leave the offendee negatively sensitized to you and prohibit them from sharing themselves on a level essential for the relationship's strength and stability.

7 Dos in Responding to the Offendee

Having encapsulated the key "don'ts" in this matter, here are some fundamental "dos":

1. Calm yourself down.

Since when another person is disgruntled with you, you're likely to feel rather upset yourself, lower your shoulders, slow down your breathing, and do anything else that will help you think more clearly about what in the moment is necessary for the relationship — assuming you value it and wouldn't consciously undermine it.

2. Come from kindness.

Can you can suspend the possible rightness — or righteousness — of your contrary perspective? Assuming their reaction was legitimate and authentic for them, can you put your differing viewpoint aside and make the effort to emotionally identify and align yourself with their painful experience?

Vicariously "attaching" yourself to their stressful reaction will influence the tone of your response and help rectify the relational damage you never intended to cause. (And consider here the common expression: "It's not what you say; it's how you say it.") Keep in mind that the way you express yourself will either escalate the conflict and ill will now present between you or, ideally, alleviate it.

3. Offer an apology.

It doesn't really matter that your behavior lacked malignant intent or that you couldn't possibly have realized they would react as they did. All that counts is that their feelings were hurt and that you therefore want to let them know how sorry you are that what you said or did had such an unsettling, worrisome, or riling effect on them.

But putting yourself down really isn't in order here. Nor is it helpful. For any self-censure (like "I'm just such a stupid oaf!") draws attention away from them and back onto you — as though perhaps what you really want is for them to apologize for feeling hurt by you (!). Finally, regardless of whether they're emotionally prepared to accept your apology, be careful not in any way to criticize them for their disturbed reaction.

4. Show respect.

Odds are that what the offendee negatively reacted to was that your behavior felt disrespectful to them — as though you were either putting them down or seeing their wants and needs as inconsequential. And various mental health professionals have emphasized how crucial a person's pride, dignity, and self-respect are to them.

So if you've threatened the positive self-image they've strived over the years to secure (probably like yourself?), it's critical that in walking back what you said to them you say something gracious that neutralizes that perceived threat. You might tell them, for example: "Your thoughts and feelings really matter to me, and I'm so sorry that what I said suggested I didn't have much regard for you, 'cause I absolutely do."

5. Review what you said for possible insensitivities.

For instance, if you're bantering with another, it's all too easy to take it one step too far. Your innocently joking about the other person (and, in fact, they might have been poking fun at you, too) could suddenly hit a nerve if it revives not fully resolved experiences of their having in the past been rudely ridiculed or made fun of.

Even what you felt was useful, constructive feedback could be taken the wrong way. The offendee may have viewed your "helpful" suggestions as critical of how they were approaching some task, project, or relationship. And that would be especially likely if in growing up they were routinely and harshly judged by their parents, leaving them with serious doubts as to whether they were — or could be—good enough.

In fact, none of us are without defenses, and we need to realize that we can inadvertently trigger others' self-protective mechanisms as well.

6. Inquire what about your behavior irked or displeased them. (And note that it could have been not something you said but some action you took — or didn't take.)

Humbly (vs. curtly or condescendingly), ask whether they somehow felt discounted, dismissed, or maybe overpowered by you. For a truly caring desire to protect them could nonetheless have led them to feel patronized, manipulated, or controlled. Going significantly beyond this, you might:

7. Invite them to illuminate you about their past.

For if they can tell you about what they experienced earlier (whether recently or a long time ago) that made your behavior sting so much, you can ensure that you never cause them to feel this way again.

Obviously, the more you learn about their interpersonal history, the more likely you'll be able to avoid offending them in the future. Plus, the more of their past they feel safe in sharing with you, the greater the chance you can not only correct what went wrong but also improve, or upgrade, your relationship with them generally.

NOTE: Here's a link to the first part of this post: "Why It's So Easy to Offend Others and Get Offended Yourself" (2021, Oct 13). And here's a second link, to a post I published earlier on this subject: "How Quick Are You to Take Offense? 10 Powerful Remedies" (2019, Mar 13).

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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