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How to Respond if You Were Disrespectful
Overview

The vast majority of us can recall a moment we regret, when we’ve said or done something disrespectful to someone else, and may have been called out for it. How can we try to make amends with the person we harmed? Here are four steps we can take to show the other person we care.

Notice How You're Feeling

When we behave in ways that don’t match up with how we want to show up in the world, it’s common to feel deep shame or anger. 

We call these “trampoline emotions” for two reasons. First, they are likely to bounce us off in some extreme directions. For example, when feeling deep shame at our own behavior, we might lash out with defensive comments like, “so you’re calling me a racist?!” (when the other person is simply saying that something you did was racist) – or, “so I can’t express myself anymore?” (when the way that you expressed yourself had a silencing or otherwise harmful effect on others). Trampoline emotions might also cause some of us to shut down and stop engaging. The second reason we call these trampoline emotions is because they are designed to protect us from going under the (metaphorical) trampoline – in other words, facing the reality that we’ve been disrespectful – where we’ll often find deep hurt.

When you’re called out for being disrespectful, take a minute to notice how you’re feeling. Are you angry? Ashamed? Hurt? Acknowledge those emotions. Then remember that even if you didn’t intend to hurt that person, their hurt is still very real and legitimate. For example, if I’m sleeping in bed beside my partner, and in their sleep they elbow me in the face, the fact that they didn’t mean to (and in fact were asleep!) doesn’t affect the fact that my face hurts.

The key point here is that intentions aren’t magic. Remember that what’s being called into question is an action or behavior, something you did, and not your whole character, who you are as a person. In fact, use this moment as an opportunity to show up as who you really are: kind, caring, and a work in progress (just like the rest of us).

Get Curious

Try to understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of the person you disrespected. What was this experience like for them? How did they feel when it happened? How do they feel now? What does resolution look like?

It’s normal to want to go into an “explaining mode,” where we want to explain what we “really meant” and why we didn’t mean for it to have the impact that it did. And yes, in some cases context can help the other person understand why we were disrespectful. But the point of stepping into their shoes is to be curious about how our actions were actually perceived and what their impact was. Remember, intentions aren’t magic. If we start trying to explain our disrespectful behavior without fully understanding and acknowledging its harmful impact on the other person, our explanation often just looks like an “excuse” because we’re only willing to see our side of the story.

When getting curious, ask open questions instead of leading ones. Open questions like, “how did that make you feel?” and “what do you wish I had done instead?” invite the other person to share their perspective and give you honest feedback. Meanwhile, leading questions like, “so you’re saying I’m a jerk?” and “what is this world coming to?” are combative and just tell the other person that you’re not able to hear feedback or commit to treating others with respect.

It can also help to do your own research. It’s not necessarily the job of the person we harmed to put aside their feelings so they can take time and energy to teach us why our behavior was wrong. So even if they don’t want to have that conversation and respond to your open questions, don’t revert to defensiveness right away. Remember that they are hurt too. Instead, stay curious. Use your favorite internet browser to see if you can find a resource or article online that helps explain why your action or comment could have come off as disrespectful. 

Apologize for What You Did

A quick tutorial on how to apologize: A real apology looks like, “I’m sorry that I…” and NOT like, “I’m sorry that/if you…” 

A real apology takes accountability. “I’m sorry that I said that; that I did that; etc.” is an apology. “I’m sorry that you’re upset; that you feel bad; that you’re offended; etc” is not. “I’m sorry if I offended you” is also not an apology…because it doesn’t truly take accountability for the fact that we did actually offend that person, not hypothetically. Give a real apology that shows you care.

It can be hard to deliver an authentic apology when we’re swirling in the “trampoline emotions” of shame, anger, and hurt. If you’re unable to apologize in the moment, tell the other person:

1. how grateful you are to them for communicating their concerns with you;

2. that you’d like to have time to think about what happened a little more;

3. and when you can meet again. 

This shows them that you’re taking this seriously and not just dismissing the fact that you were disrespectful. When you meet again, be prepared to deliver your authentic apology. 

Commit to Making Amends

An apology is not enough. What will you do to prevent this from happening again? How can you make this up to the other person?

These are larger questions that we can rarely answer in the moment. We may be able to start having this conversation after we apologize, but we may need more time to figure it out. Consider asking the person(s) you disrespected for feedback – but at the same time, remember that it’s not their responsibility to put aside their feelings and do the work to figure it all out for you. This is where your research might come in handy again.

Remember, this is a lifelong learning journey. What are you learning at this moment that can guide how you show up in the future?

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YOU ARE POWERFUL

Remember, everyone can do something. At this time in our history, it is even more important that we show up for one another as active bystanders. Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.

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