What would you do if you found out something you said hurt someone you cared about?
I was recently on the receiving end of some hurtful words from a friend. The thing is, he had no idea they were hurtful. A phrase he kept using around me caused grief over a recent loss to surface, and every time he said it, it was all I could do to redirect my thoughts so I wouldn’t burst into tears. I didn’t say anything for a while; I thought either he would stop saying it or it would stop bothering me. But neither of those things happened. Finally I built up the courage to tell him those words were painful for me, and ask him to stop using them. And you know how he responded?
“I am so sorry. I had no idea. Of course, I will stop saying that.”
He acknowledged my feelings, apologized for the impact his words had on me, and committed to doing better. He didn’t judge me for how I felt, tell me that I need thicker skin, or argue that those words aren’t inherently hurtful so he should be able to keep using them around me. He was a good friend who understood that something he was doing, even though it wasn’t intentional, was hurtful, so he apologized and committed to stop doing it. It’s what all of us would do for a friend if we were in the same situation, right? We don’t have to totally understand or feel the exact same way as someone else to show them empathy.
It occurred to me that my friend’s response is really an example of the best way to respond if anyone we interact with, personally or professionally, shares that what we say or do is a microaggression, offensive, and/or hurtful to them.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea. I’ll do better.”
No defensiveness, no judgment, no argument, no burdens placed on the other person to “get over it.” Just empathy and a genuine commitment to doing better. It takes courage for someone to share with us that we are hurting them, and most of the time, they’re not judging our character (as I wasn’t with my friend) — they’re just bringing to our attention that something we do is hurtful and asking us to stop. It’s truly a simple request, and our response should be, “of course.”
If we want the world to be a better place, we can start by treating everyone we encounter with the kindness and compassion we would show a good friend.