Our language shapes our thoughts

Correcting inappropriate comments is an important part of the diversity challenge, says Janet Tarasofsky

Imagine you are in the middle of a meeting with a colleague with whom you are having a disagreement and he/she suddenly says something completely inappropriate about your ________ (fill in the blank: gender, age, race, religion, or even your value, contribution, work). What do you say or do? Unless you are one of those quick-witted people who are always ready with a great line, you may well be so shocked that you don’t know how to respond.

One way to reply is by using a “place holder” such as:

  • “Wow, what an interesting view you have of the entire female gender. Give me a moment to think how to best respond to that.”
  • “It sounds like you have been very badly educated. Where did you say you went to school?”
  • “Excuse me please, I am in dire need of a bathroom break.”

All three will give you an opportunity to take a well-needed minute to breathe, (or pee, if actually needed), and decide on your next move.

Know your objective

It is important to continue that meeting with a clear objective. Do you deal with this comment now or later? Do you want to deal with this comment alone, or do you need someone to support you?

If you prefer to have support then you have two options: either park the issue and address it later, or find a way to bring the meeting to a close and to be continued at a later date. Go and speak to either HR or your manager to explain the situation and ask for a plan of action. Ensure that they understand how upset you are, rather than reducing it to “no big deal”.

If you feel calm and con dent enough continue the meeting and to confront the offender without losing your cool, try this conversation strategy:

  • Ask where the idea of the comment originated? Try to really listen and understand their answer. This question will help you establish whether the comment was intended to upset you on purpose, or if he/she just didn’t know any better.
  • Ask if they were aware that those types of comments were offensive? If so, ask why they chose to express it in front of you. Your line of questioning should start to make the offender uncomfortable at this stage and they should start to realise the impact.
  • Explain how their comment made you feel. Be as honest and forthcoming as possible. So long as you are speaking about your own feelings, there is no way anyone can contradict you. The offender will now feel equally as uncomfortable as their words made you feel. Hopefully he/she will be apologetic.
  • If they are feeling sorry, end the conversation by thanking the person for listening and explaining that you hope there is never a recurrence.
  • If they don’t seem sorry at all, then let them know that you will be the informing the HR team.

The core of my advice is based on experience, blended with technique, as the following real-life scenario shows. I used to work for two men who were extremely “Old School” in their attitudes. They were constantly making jokes about women, which they thought were hysterical. I was the only senior woman at the time and thought it best to ignore them. Then one day I overheard them speaking about a financial scam from the morning paper, which they kept referring to as ‘Jew-ing’.

I interrupted the conversation and asked exactly what that meant. To which they replied that “To Jew” meant “To scam”. I asked them where they learnt that expression from, to which they relied that everyone says it. Neither had thought much about the word or its obvious offensiveness. They were extremely embarrassed once I pointed it out and a few days later came into my office to thank me for teaching them a harsh lesson with compassion.

Our language shapes our thoughts and our thoughts shape our actions. It is essential we correct people’s language when it is inappropriate, if at all possible, and that we do so without hatred.

Janet Tarasofsky is the founder of Speaking Rights, and is an award-winning professional keynote speaker.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of LEAD. To make sure you never miss an issue, subscribe today for as little as £50 for the year.