We hear it all the time in business. Don’t take things personally. Don’t be thin-skinned. Don’t be sensitive. We’re told what not to be over and over again in our professional lives; told to suppress natural feelings and resist or fight instinctive behaviors. For some, this isn’t a problem – many individuals are blessed with the ability to remove emotion from business or any other situation which requires them to keep a level head. These people can let things roll off their backs and remain calm in the face of insults, disappointments, challenges, and perceived threats. I am not one of those people, and I don’t think I’m alone.
You will be offended at some point in your career; it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ In fact, there’s a strong likelihood that it’s already happened. But without the skills to handle the resulting emotions appropriately, you may find yourself dealing with repercussions, even if you did nothing wrong.
Acceptance, recognition, analysis, and planning are things that must happen when we endure trials, and not always in that order. These concepts are also parts of emotional intelligence. But without the E.I. to deal with these obstacles appropriately, you risk making hasty decisions, reacting in ways that could jeopardize your career and reputation, and burning bridges (never a good thing). So let’s get started by accepting that you will be offended and recognizing what happens to you when the offense occurs.
Someone Offended You
You may be thick-skinned, or you may be easily wounded. As humans, our emotional makeup varies as greatly as our fingerprints – we’re all unique. One key thing to carry with you at all times is the belief that you are never wrong for feeling something. The concept of right and wrong applies to deeds, principles, facts, and logic. Saying 2+2=5 is wrong. Standing up for someone who’s being bullied is right.
These two examples don’t illustrate the same type of wrong and right – one is factual and the other is moral. The point is that while feelings can be inappropriate or inconvenient, you aren’t wrong for having them. They’re natural chemical reactions produced by our brains when we interpret something, and are often a reflex or beyond our control. Interpretations are not factual and, therefore, may differ across a large group of people experiencing the same scenario.
Define and Identify
When you are offended in a professional setting, the best thing you can do is avoid reacting immediately from that locus of self-defense. Take the first available opportunity to pause and ask yourself, what was the nature of the offense? Was it personal or professional? Can you make a distinction between the two? For example, did somebody make an inappropriate remark about your personality, character, or home life? Did they criticize, disrespect, or belittle your professional skills, efforts, and accomplishments? Or is there a thin line between the two, which was delicately straddled, making it hard to tell the difference?
The clues to why you feel offended lie in the way you would describe the offense. After you’ve ruled it personal, professional, or an ambiguous combination of those, how would you describe what it looked like? Was it callous, insensitive, rude, crude, lewd, impolite, mean, or laden with innuendo? Now, consider the source: did the offensive action or remark come from someone superior to you, subordinate to you, or lateral to you? Does this person habitually disrespect you, or is this an isolated incident? How have you handled (or not handled) it in the past to contribute to or squash the continued behavior?
Try to get on the offender’s level mentally and understand what might cause them to act this way (other than a lack of professionalism and maturity). Whether it was deliberate, under-handed, or they’re just oblivious to the way they come off to others, their perception of you and yours of them may be playing a big part in the underlying subtext and your interpretation of the offense. Do you have something they want? Does he or she look up to you or down on you? Does this person disrespect others in the office, or is this behavior mainly directed toward you?
Recognize the Symptoms and Triggers
You know yourself. Are you an easy-going person or someone who’s always getting their feelings hurt? Could you be overreacting? Conversely, could you be making light of a situation that’s more serious than you’re admitting? It’s time to be honest with yourself.
When I feel that flush of anger, tears welling up, or my voice getting shaky, I attempt to divert my attention to other things. I may fidget and fiddle, doodle, think happy thoughts… but it’s necessary to get off the ride, if you know what I mean. Emotion comes in waves and, like the ocean, it’s something to be respected. If you aren’t well-equipped to recognize and process your emotions in a positive and mature way, you’ll face many challenges in your jobs, relationships, and personal peace.
I like to stop dead in my tracks (even if I’m sitting at the board room table) and think to myself, “Hmm. This is interesting. I feel ________. I wonder why I feel this way. Let’s figure that out.” Setting this tone of mindfulness will sort of pause the tape so that you can bookmark that feeling and pick up where you left off when it’s more appropriate. The series of questions you must ask yourself next are the difference-makers (and will only help if you can be honest with you).
Are you insulted because you care about what this person thinks of you? If so, why are you emotionally invested in their opinion and how much does it really matter? Are you miffed because the offense has interfered with your job in some way? Is it just a distraction or is it something more serious than that? Is there any shred of truth to what the person said? Did their actions threaten or undermine your job in some way? Once you’ve answered these questions and investigated each consequent response, you should be feeling less clouded and better suited to process what’s going on and move forward. And moving forward might just mean forgetting about it – you might conclude that you were silly to be provoked by such an asinine comment from a person whose opinion affects you in no way. Or, on the other hand, you might realize that it’s necessary to escalate the situation. I’ll address resolution in a later paragraph.
Reframe Your Interpretation of the Offense
Remember, you are 50% of every two-way interaction or exchange in which you participate. Unless you were sitting quietly at your desk and a co-worker approached you out of the blue to bombard you with insults, chances are that you were having a conversation or that earlier actions sparked this volley. That’s why it’s just as important to evaluate yourself when putting them under the magnifying glass. If you can definitely say that you did nothing to warrant the way you were spoken to or treated (not saying that you deserved it if you were in fact engaged in some kind of back-and-forth), and you can’t let it go, then you can either feel sorry for them or take action against them.
You have two options whenever anyone says something you don’t like. Accept it or don’t. Acceptance doesn’t have to mean agreement, but you can’t change it. It’s not your responsibility or your right to control someone else’s feelings, thoughts, and opinions. How well do you know this person? You probably don’t know many of your co-workers on a deeply personal level. Even working with someone for several years doesn’t mean you know them and who they are when they’re at home. Something may have happened in their past or during their upbringing that wounded them, or left them feeling invincible, entitled, and like treating people with kindness and respect isn’t important.
Hurt people hurt people. Does that make sense? Whole people don’t generally go around spewing venom at others. This offense may not have been deliberate; it may be able to be attributed to the offender’s nature. But regardless of the set-up or background, any off-color remarks should be analyzed before being disregarded. You can choose to be understanding, sympathetic, or turn the other cheek, but don’t make excuses for someone who repeatedly treats you poorly and don’t blame yourself for being attacked and getting upset.
Fragment Your Course of Action
You always have options. They might not be favorable or desirable, but they’re there. I already mentioned that you can accept what happened or choose not to accept it. You might choose to forgive the offense without escalating the issue, or you may decide that enough is enough, it was really out of line and you need to take action.
And that’s where the irony comes in. The people who tell you not to get upset, not to take things personally, to just get over it, are essentially telling you to ignore it and do nothing. However, those same people are probably the type of people who would subscribe to the notion that if you don’t like something, you should change it. If you can’t change it, you should remove yourself from it. So they are prescribing some kind of action, and which course it ends up being usually depends on which side of the fence they’re standing.
You can’t conduct yourself according to what those people tell you. I’m sure they look out for themselves, and you have to grant yourself permission to do the same (even if they’re senior and you’re subordinate). Don’t take any kind of abuse in the workplace – if something has you really upset and you just can’t get over it, go to HR or your boss and explain that the circumstances are impacting your work. And if the person offending you is your boss, you may want to tread lightly when you go to HR, or you may want to consider looking for other opportunities where you’ll be treated more fairly.
Whatever you do though, be mature. If you absolutely must take action, be very professional and avoid certain words, tones, and postures. Try to recount the situation as calmly and objectively as possible, focusing on facts and not interpretations (instead of letting your inner child take over and make you sound like a whiny, juvenile tattletale).
You’ll want to report the offense in person, not via email or over the phone, and behind closed doors if possible. If you’re nervous, plan it. Rehearse it. Talk to yourself in the mirror until you feel that you’re capable of communicating assertively without sounding vindictive. And be careful not to exaggerate or omit details to skew anyone’s perception of the event or the offender. Resist the urge to gossip about it with co-workers, even the ones you trust and consider friends. Gossip lingers in the air like a pungent aroma. People sense it, and your words can be distorted and come back to haunt you. If you get caught gossiping, you won’t be taken seriously. The focus will be shifted to how you reacted to the offense instead of the offense itself. So try to maintain poise and control when you make your next move.
After you’ve done what you must, get over it. Don’t lick your wounds or carry a grudge. Don’t be a brat and isolate yourself from that person (unless you feel seriously threatened). Don’t stop being a team player and showing everyone that you’re a professional through and through. Don’t throw a tantrum if your complaint isn’t acknowledged or if the resulting action doesn’t satisfy you. And don’t stoop to their level and start looking for ways to take jabs at them.
If you respect this individual and there’s a chance they could be rational and receptive, you could even approach them directly (and calmly) to let them know why you were offended by something they said or did, and ask them to refrain from acting that way in the future. The only reason I didn’t recommend this earlier is because, in many cases, if you engage with the offender directly while you’re upset, the situation can escalate quickly and get way out of hand. But once you’ve cooled off and thought about it, maybe you’ll decide it’s best to talk to them.
Just keep this in mind: their response is not your concern and your goal isn’t to control their reaction or receive an apology – it’s only to gain closure and convey a message of self-respect and maturity. You’ll have to be prepared for them to react defensively or to talk about you negatively to others – but again, that’s beyond your control. You can only manage your own behavior, so carry yourself proudly and imagine there’s ice water running through your veins as you remove yourself from the interaction instead of giving that person any more power over you.
There are two pieces of writing I’d like to reference to support this advice. One is a book called The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. The Four Agreements is a book centered on the teachings of Toltec wisdom, meant to bring personal freedom. The second of the four agreements that you make to yourself is not to take anything personally. Ruiz positions offenses as a reflection of the offender. He says “If someone gives you an opinion and says, ‘Hey, you look so fat,’ don’t take it personally, because the truth is that this person is dealing with his or her own feelings, beliefs, and opinions. That person tried to send poison to you and if you take it personally, then you take that poison and it becomes yours.” Excellent book – I highly recommend it.
But for those of us who have a harder time simply transcending the “poison” of others and not taking things personally, I suggest reading an article by Brett Fox called How To Take What Happens To You In Business Personally And Win. For all of the people who belittle your concerns by telling you to toughen up and ignore things, point out to them that oftentimes business is personal. Fox lists eight ways to use emotion to your advantage and get yourself under control at the same time. It’s a very good read.
It’s your life, and your job affects your life in many ways. So responding to offenses appropriately is even more crucial at work than it is at the grocery store or with a friend. Next time you’re offended at work, slow it down, look for an exit, have a little conversation with yourself, and decide what to do (or not do) based on the answers you come up with, Brett’s advice, and the wisdom of the Toltec.