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On Being Offended

There are few things more satisfying than taking offense.

Those offended gain the thrill of self-righteousness! And the sweet reward that others will rush to their aid, offering assurance that they, too, are offended and that others think and feel the same.

But is all offense-taking justified?

An urban school principal recently told me that one of his greatest challenges is dealing with emotionally reactive staff.

He gave this example: A teacher’s student told her to “eff-off.”

The teacher was highly reactive to this insult and publicly confronted the student.

This led to moderate physical contact between teacher and student. Now, it’s a bigger problem.

“Refuse to be offended”

The principal said to me: “I try to live by this rule of thumb:

“Refuse to be offended.”

“I’m trying to teach my staff how important it is to stay poised in the moment and address the problem only after a disruptive student calms down.”

“An out-of-control teacher cannot discipline an out-of-control student.”

“In the vast majority of cases I’ve seen, the student knows they were out of line, and, when the heat settles, will admit it and apologize.”

“Backing them into a corner doesn’t work. It just leads to fruitless escalation.”

Exaggerated threat responses happen all the time.

In a family business I work with, a mother is the leader. She decides that her twenty-something son is not yet experienced enough to take over as the leader.

She says to her son, “I want to give you escalating responsibility for the next five years, and then you would become the president and majority owner.”

The son is indignant about her decision. He believes he’s ready to lead the business now. He threatens to leave and start his own operation.

Lack of curiosity

In a conversation with the son, I noticed his lack of curiosity. What does his mother see in him that needs more time to develop? What specific behaviors would tell her he’s ready to run the show? Might this be more about her un-readiness to leave rather than his un-readiness to lead?

Paradoxically, the son’s immature impulse reveals a leadership weakness.

Like the teacher in the first example, he’s offended, and his dominant response is blame and resentment. No seeking understanding.

I see two challenges at work here.

The first is the importance of accurate threat assessment. How serious is this? How imminent is my need to respond? Would a cool-down period serve the best interests of all involved, or is an immediate response justified?

The second is the importance of understanding the “offender.” What’s really going on here? Is the “offender” acting with disruptive intentions? Do they understand the impact of their words and actions?

Assessing magnitude

When a police officer is randomly shot and killed, when a black man in custody is choked to death by a white officer of the law, when a terrorist executes a mass murder, the threat is real. Taking offense — and action — is a necessary human response that undergirds law and order.

A student swearing at a teacher is a lower order of magnitude, not unimportant, but not an imminent threat.

Lower still on the spectrum of seriousness is a son offended because he is deemed not ready for leadership.

The principal’s rule of thumb, “Refuse to be offended,” applies to many not all – situations where offense is too quickly taken.

The danger he points to is that the right to be offended, while justified in situations of real threat, gets misapplied in situations of lesser or non-existent threat.

For example, few insults reflect genuine danger.

“You owe me an apology”

Too often, the assumption is that if I am offended, you owe me an apology. I might be offended at the way you look at me, or talk to me, or about the fact that we disagree. As long as I am offended, you must be in the wrong.

The exaggerated response to fake threat has become a societal problem in itself: The offended person rarely has the maturity to see their own part in being offended.

Two takeaways to consider:

Looking at Self: What triggers my tendency to take offense? To what extent does my level of reactivity match the actual level of threat I’m perceiving? When might I see “being different” as “being wrong?” In what situations do I tend to exaggerate my response to a relatively benign threat?

Understanding Others: What’s really going on with the person I perceive as offensive? What’s the backstory and context? Is there a possibility of dialogue? Is this a one-off incident – a bad day - or a pattern?

Being offended is sometimes justified and sometimes exaggerated. Honest self-reflection helps us tell the difference.


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