If you feel like conversations are a potential minefield and you’re worried about inadvertently offending someone, you’re not alone. This can be especially difficult if you’re delivering constructive criticism and don’t want the person to be hurt by your words. Having respect and empathy for others will help you avoid offending them. If you do happen to say something offensive, apologize sincerely and be willing to learn from your mistake so you won’t repeat it.
Method 1 of 13: THINK before you speak.
Use this acronym to plan what you’ll say before tough conversations. THINK is an acronym that stands for the 5 things any constructive criticism should be: True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind. If what you have to say meets all 5 criteria, it’s unlikely the person you’re talking to will be hurt by it.
- For example, you might say, “Your reports are always impeccable. Unfortunately, they’re always at least a week late, and this jams up other departments. What can I do to help you get them in on time?”
- If your words push the other person to rise to the occasion and take ownership of the issue directly, you’ve done your job. They’ll be less likely to feel hurt or think you’re targeting them unfairly.
Method 2 of 13: Make I-statements to reduce defensiveness.
Focus on your own beliefs rather than pointing at the other person. When someone feels as though you’re blaming them for something, their defenses are likely to go up. This happens either because you’ve said something hurtful or the person is worried that you will. Framing your own perspective leaves room for the other person’s perspective as well.
- For example, you might say, “I feel overwhelmed and rushed when you give me your report at the last minute.” Compare this to “You never turn in your report on time.” The second statement is more likely to make the person feel attacked and become defensive.
- Follow your I-statement with what you want to happen in the future. For example, you might say, “I feel overwhelmed and rushed when you give me your report at the last minute. I’d appreciate it if you’d turn it in at least a day earlier so I have time to incorporate your data in the department report.”
Method 3 of 13: Sandwich criticism between positive comments.
Boost the other person with compliments to inspire them to step up. If you tell someone what they’re doing right, it encourages them to go the extra mile to fix anything you might have a problem with. You leave them with the sense that they’re capable of improving on their results.
- For example, you might say, “I was really pleased with how you handled that rude customer. In the future, I’d prefer if you let a manager handle those situations. You’re great at merchandising and I want you to focus on that.”
Method 4 of 13: Request a change instead of pointing out a fault.
This approach lets the person know what to do in the future. Pointing out what someone did wrong is often not necessary. What is necessary is making sure they don’t do the same thing again, and you can often accomplish this without criticizing them for something negative they did.
- For example, you might say, “In the future, could you clear the table in the break room when you’re done eating?” This frames it as a request, rather than saying, “You need to stop leaving a mess in the break room after lunch.”
Method 5 of 13: Criticize behavior rather than personality traits.
Offering specific, actionable feedback empowers the person to change it. Give the person something they can work on without insulting their personality or their character. Blaming a personality trait is an easy way out that will only hurt the person and won’t solve your problem.
- For example, if you have an employee who doesn’t communicate well with the other members of their team, you might say, “In the future, I’d like it if you checked in with each of your team members first thing in the morning.” This is going to go over a lot better than if you say, “you’re not a team player.”
Method 6 of 13: Compliment actions rather than physical characteristics.
Complimenting someone for something they can’t control can be offensive. Focus on the things people do and the choices they make, rather than the physical attributes they were born with. When you compliment someone’s physical features, you can come across as objectifying them, which can be highly offensive.
- For example, if you like one of the baristas at your regular coffee shop, you might compliment the way he makes your coffee rather than his eyes or his hair.
- If you like a particular physical characteristic, you can still say so! Just focus your compliment on something the person did that brings out that particular feature. For example, rather than saying someone has pretty eyes (which they were born with and can’t control), you might say, “That shirt you’re wearing really enhances the color of your eyes.”
Method 7 of 13: Respect each person’s individuality.
Words that you have no problem with might be hurtful to others. Usually, when you’re talking to someone, you don’t know what experiences they’ve had or what trauma they’ve gone through. If someone is hurt by something you’ve said, accept that—don’t question it or insult them over it.
- Think of this in terms of not hurting someone. People carry scars from all sorts of bad experiences, and you never know when you might inadvertently touch on one. When you do, acknowledge that you weren’t aware of their sensitivity, apologize, and move on. Don’t dwell on it or insist that they justify their feelings.
- For example, suppose you’re a white person who’s used to referring to people of other races as “minorities.” You might meet someone who insists that “minority” is incorrect because people of color are actually a global majority, and it offends them for you to use this term. The correct response is to apologize and ask them which term you should use instead.
Method 8 of 13: Ask people directly about their identity.
Find out what terms each person uses rather than assuming. Focus on how the person would describe themselves, then use those terms consistently when you refer to them. This approach acknowledges each person’s autonomy and power to define themselves.
- For example, if you’re introducing a speaker who’s giving a talk on racial relations in the workplace, you might ask them, “How do you describe your race?” Then, use their answer in your introduction.
- Confine your questions to information that’s important and relevant to the situation. If you’re in a social setting and you’re curious, it’s probably fine to ask if you keep it light. For example, you might say, “I’m just curious, how do you describe your race?”
- When asking about gender, simply say, “What are your pronouns?” Don’t use the phrase “preferred pronouns,” which makes it sound like a choice or an option.
Method 9 of 13: Keep praise proportionate to the action.
People feel belittled if you praise them profusely for small achievements. Typically, this sort of over-the-top praise carries an assumption that the achievement is a big deal for someone because of their race, gender, or disability. Ask yourself if you would offer the same level of praise if that person was exactly like you.
- For example, a disabled person is likely to get offended if you praise them for everyday actions such as getting groceries or going to the post office. You wouldn’t praise an able-bodied person for getting their errands done! Save your praise for accomplishments where it’s warranted.
- Similarly, someone who’s just living their life and doing relatively ordinary things doesn’t need to be told they’re amazing or an “inspiration” because they happen to be living with a disability.
Method 10 of 13: Avoid imposing your feelings on others.
Use neutral words without emotional content or negative connotations. Generally, saying someone “has” a disease or condition is better than saying they “suffer” from it. Particularly when you’re talking about a chronic condition, people are typically just trying to live their lives, and may not feel that they’re suffering from day to day.
- Similarly, it can be offensive to disabled people to call them “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” For a disabled person, their mobility aid is liberating and allows them to do things on their own that they’d otherwise need assistance to do.
Method 11 of 13: Accept people with an open mind.
Show that you’re willing to listen to other ideas and viewpoints. Not everybody is going to agree with you and there’s nothing wrong with that. By listening and trying to understand why people think the way they do, you can learn something about yourself and other people.
- You run the risk of offending people when you reduce their value to where they stand on a particular issue. But all people are complex and have many different reasons that they think the way they do.
- This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them, or even pretend that you do. But you can show respect by listening to them and giving them a chance to explain their point of view.
Method 12 of 13: Don’t use someone’s identity or condition as an insult.
Some slang terms put a particular identity or condition in a bad light. Using terms related to someone’s identity or condition as an insult or derogatory remark marginalizes and alienates people who identify that way or have that condition. Typically, using a health condition as slang in this way reduces that condition to its worst symptoms.
- For example, if the weather’s unpredictable, just say that instead of saying it’s “schizophrenic.”
- In the same vein, don’t use diagnosed medical conditions as a shorthand for common personality traits. This usage trivializes the condition and can offend people with it. For example, if you’re talking about how you’re very particular about organization, don’t say “I’m so OCD about that.”
Method 13 of 13: Apologize when called out or corrected.
If you do offend someone, learn from your mistake. It takes courage for someone to stand up for themselves when they’re offended by something someone else said. Tell them you’re sorry, that you didn’t intend to hurt them, and that it’ll never happen again.
- Don’t press them for details or ask them to explain or justify their feelings. The fact that your words hurt them is all you need to know. If they do take the time to explain what you said wrong, thank them.
- For example, you might say, “Thank you for educating me.” You could also say, “Thank you for helping me become a better human.”