What to Do When Someone Offends or Snaps at You

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt you ‘  I never found this saying to be true.  However, there are things you can do when people say hurtful things, whether they mean to or not.

Communicate Your Feelings

I think one of the most important things to do when someone offends you, intentionally or not, is to clearly communicate how what they said made you feel.

One time someone did something unintentionally which really hurt me and so I wrote them a letter.  Some may choose to message a person or talk in person, but in my case it was appropriate to write a letter.

I told them how I know they didn’t mean what they did, but I said how it made me feel and what I wanted from them in the future.  The next time I talked to them they were so thankful that I had been so open, honest, and understanding in the midst of their mistake and it really made an impression them.

You never know how your thoughtful response can impact the other person.  Expressing your feelings in a compassionate way that doesn’t enable or accept their behavior can model for others how to deal with negative emotions and pain in a positive and thoughtful way.

Set Boundaries

Just because someone says something negative about you doesn’t make it true.

Once I told a student to go to the office for an infraction, which I don’t remember now what it was, but their response was to say if we were on an island they would vote me off.  I just said okay in a nonchalant way, and they left all in a huff.  I was able to respond like this because I recognized that they were angry and just wanted to get back at me.  I had made them look bad in front of their peers and they wanted to do the same to me.

When someone says something that offends you or snaps at you, consider the underlying issue.  Are they having a bad day?  Did you hit a nerve and so they’re lashing out?  Are they projecting their own issues onto you?

Sometimes you have to tell yourself: ‘It’s not about me. It’s about their own struggles.’ Set boundaries to protect you from the negative assaults that may come your way.  Then you can have compassion for them and hope that they can overcome their own issues and be happier, but you wouldn’t be able to think this way if you internalized what they were saying and put it on yourself, thinking you’re a bad person or something like that.

Stay Calm

Getting angry and upset in response to hurtful words only escalates and exacerbates the situation. Instead, stay calm. 

Once I had a colleague confront me in the hall angry because I had inadvertently scheduled a meeting at the same time as hers.  I was taken aback and embarrassed, but I stayed calm and listened.  Of course I apologized for my mistake, and understood where she was coming from.  Then I asked her what she wanted me to do about to fix it.

You may think, why do I need to think about them when they’re the ones who are aggressive and angry?  Your response and reaction impacts your own emotional state and the relationship you have with that person.  It’s important to keep your emotions in check even if the other person is unable to.  This will help to create a space for a neutral conversation later when both sides have cooled off and emotions are no longer revved up and intense.  Then compromise, true listening, and understanding can take place, but not before.

In the end I understood that my colleague was lashing out at me for some underlying issues that did not involve me.  I was able to depersonalize the situation by setting boundaries, remaining calm, and in turn keeping my relationship with my colleague intact.

Acknowledge the Other Person’s Feelings

Often people lash out because there’s something else going on that we may or may not know about.  This doesn’t make their comments okay, but it can help you understand them and respond appropriately.

As a teacher, I’ve had students react angrily over something that might appear small like changing something in their writing or moving to another seat.  I needed to address the feelings that were behind the anger: feelings of injustice, inadequacy, fear, or mistrust.  Sometimes people don’t even realize why they react as they do; it’s just instinct or a triggered emotion.  As the person on the receiving end, sometimes we have to untangle the emotional chaos.

To deescalate the situation: ask questions or rephrase.  This shows that you’re listening and can help calm the tension.  So you think… From your point of view the situation is… Let me be sure I understand correctly …

Definitely acknowledge how the person feels even if they are not expressing it appropriately. I understand that you feel… and so you’re acting … maybe we can… It seems like you are …

You don’t want to accept their current behavior, but instead understanding the underlying behavior.

This step of course would not apply to all situations like people with road rage or strangers you meet in during the day because you’re not in a place or relationship to have a conversation.

Take Responsibility for Your Part in the Situation

Maybe you played a role in the situation and sparked the anger that led to nasty remarks.  Acknowledge your part in it, apologize, but communicate your displeasure over the language.  You’re more apt to come to a mutual understanding if you phrase it in a way that you can work together to come to a solution.

I know I… but I would prefer you not …

I think we can find a compromise without saying …

I know I made it worse by … but I hope we can …

Would ______ work to talk more this so we can figure out a solution together?

I hope you found these suggestions helpful.

May you find peace the next time anger is directed at you.

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