Did you really just say that?!


I recently facilitated a Diversity & Inclusion strategic planning session and kicked off the convening with a typical run through of ground-rules/safe-space/brave-space/call-them-what-you-want guidelines.  You likely know the drill… this is where participants are encouraged to use ‘I’ statements, respect confidentiality, step-forward/step-back, etc.  I always ask if participants want to offer any additional suggestions, and on this particular occasion I heard a new one:

I’d like for people to keep in mind that when you say something,
your intent does not always equal your impact

This was a new one for me—it was almost a more nuanced spin on “oops & ouch”—and I immediately fell in love with it.  The point this person was trying to make was that sometimes colleagues say things that can be interpreted very differently way from what might have been intended.  I have worked with so many people who have struggled with this—some having spent years biting their tongues when hearing coworkers say things that were meant to be ‘harmless’ but in reality cut like a knife.  I’m sure this is something we can all relate to.  Whether someone propagates a ‘well-meaning’ stereotype (‘Of course you dress well, you’re gay!’), gives you a [backhanded] compliment (‘What a great picture, look at how young and thin you were!’), or throws out a term they think is acceptable and funny–but isn’t (‘That’s so ghetto!’), one’s intent [harmless] can often end up being very different from their impact [harmful].

These conundrums come up quite frequently in Diversity & Inclusion-related work, where the conversations are oftentimes personal, sensitive, and challenging.  In that moment when someone says something that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, one of the hardest things to do is to say something.  So what might one do when hearing a comment that is questionable, bothersome, or downright offensive?   Here is a 6-step approach I’d like to suggest:

  1. Take a deep breath (or a few!);
  2. Ask if the person could clarify whatever it was that they said (or explain why they said it);
  3. If the comment is still bothersome, try (try try) to be patient (keep trying!) and consider this an opportunity for a teachable moment;
  4. Respectfully explain why their comment was bothersome to you. The person might be more receptive if you start by giving them an ‘out’—“I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm, but when you said ___, it didn’t feel great to me because” I find that personalizing an explanation (using those “me/I statements”) can help others get a little closer to understanding where you’re coming from;
    –> This is where they’ll quite possibly tell you that your interpretation is not at all what they INTENDED…
  5. Tell them you understand. Thank them for hearing you out and for taking what you’ve shared into consideration;
  6. Try to move on. Hopefully it was a teachable moment.

Call me Pollyanna (I won’t get offended)—I know this is an over-simplified/perfect-case scenario that requires both parties to keep their cool and move through an awkward situation in a very mature way.   I also know many of us would prefer step 3) to instead be ‘lung across the table and rip the idiot’s head off’—but in all likelihood that wouldn’t end up being a teachable moment (or help get you the promotion you were hoping for).  More often than not we may tell ourselves “it’s just not worth it” and let the cringe-worthy comment slide.  But in reality, biting our tongues when someone “just doesn’t get it” doesn’t help create positive change and more inclusive environments.  I’m not suggesting we all become the PC-police and hand out citations for birdbrained behavior all day long.  But I do think that occasionally speaking up when someone’s words unintentionally have a harmful impact might help individuals be a little more selective of their words in the future.

Do you have a workplace story where someone’s intent was much different from their impact, and you or someone else spoke up?  If so, please share in the comments below.


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