Note: Part of this post was published back in February, but I thought it was worth a reboot now that civil discourse seems to have sunk to new lows.
Ever been in the situation when someone said something so appalling you were shocked into silence? After you’ve scraped your jaw off the floor, you’re faced with what to do—speak up or not. If you make your opinion known, you worry about consequences. If you don’t, you’re faced with condoning or normalizing dreadful behavior—or allowing some outrageous falsehood to go unchecked. In a situation that’s unlikely to recur, most of us would let it go. For the most odious and offensive remarks (i.e., those that fall into an "ism"), one-off or not, my vote is to step up.
In making the decision to confront or not, here are some additional thoughts. Safety is the first consideration. If you fear physical harm, the answer is clear: keep your mouth shut. If it’s about psychological safety and you're likely to receive a defensive response—can you handle it? Probably. Do you want to, even if it's uncomfortable? Maybe. Please speak up if the stakes are high, or you have a well-established relationship that can weather some turbulence, or (on the flip side) you don't care much about a future with this person.
It may seem odd, but the decision about whether to challenge someone becomes more complicated when the relationship is relatively superficial. These are folks with whom you're in frequent-enough contact to wish to remain "friendly" (examples: casual neighbors, volunteer committee members, occasional coworkers). Concern about future interactions may keep you silent; but silence also makes you complicit.
I know there have been times I haven’t spoken up even when I've had an investment in the relationship. In these cases, I’ve told myself addressing the issue would create an awkward situation, or would make no positive difference, or wasn't worth the discomfort. Chicken or wise? If I’m still thinking about it days later, the answer is chicken.
The book Crucial Conversations by Patterson et al is one I've encouraged countless clients to read. The authors do a great job of laying out ways to moderate one's tone and turn what could be heard as an accusation into a comment with the potential of being received. My book Work Jerks: How to Cope with Difficult Bosses and Colleagues contains ideas for phrasing as well (publication scheduled for Spring, 2022, She Writes Press). But the truth is, sometimes we're left gob smacked and just can't think, even if we’re skilled at crafting language and improvising delivery. We’ve all had those moments no matter how many books we've read or how impressive our life experience—even as a leadership and communication coach! We get a pass for being human—and vow to do better in the future. If you’re dealing with a repeat offender? Then there's no excuse to be unprepared; get ready and practice the words.
How have you handled comments that took your breath away or made you go blank?
Sending you appropriately physically distanced encouragement—and a reminder the election will be over on November 3rd (or sometime thereafter). So vote early if you can, and know "this too shall pass!"