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Wide White: If you offend someone, whose fault is it?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

If you offend someone, whose fault is it?

I've been in a few situations recently where either I was hurt by someone else's words and actions or someone else was hurt by mine.

If I say or do something that hurts or offends someone, whose responsibility is it?

Responses to this question from the hurtful person tend to include:

"You misinterpreted me."
"It was a misunderstanding."
"You weren't listening to what I had to say."
"You don't know my heart."
"You're being overly-sensitive."
"You're focusing on the negatives."

I've heard these and many other reasons given for dismissing or discrediting someone who is offended. I've used these reasons to excuse things I've said and done before. The offender's focus is on why the offended reacted the way they did and and why they shouldn't have, not on what was done to hurt them and why that may have been wrong.

There are certainly cases in which offense or hurt is out of our control. If my wife and I each have a sibling getting married on the same day, there's nothing we can do to change the fact that someone may be hurt because one or both of us can't make one of the weddings.

But what about when something we say or do hurts someone? How do we respond when a friend brings up a comment made 3 years ago that hurt them and still sticks with them? What do we say when someone confronts us about actions we took towards them that they found hurtful?

These are cases where I think we must apologize and take responsibility. Whether we're right or wrong in what we believed isn't important. What's important is that what we said or did caused hurt, which indicates that it was poorly communicated.

Here's what I've concluded: If you find yourself in this kind of situation, repair the relationship. Accepting responsibility for being a source of hurt and pain through poor communication is far more important than arguing the nuances of your point of view. There may be a time and place for that at some point, but right now, your actions and your comments were hurtful. Swallow your pride, apologize, and move forward.

Starting with me.

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Anonymous Anonymous declared,

Sorry for the offensive smell that came from my rear the other day. Hopefully we can still be friends. Dstew

12/07/2010 7:26 AM  
Blogger -V- declared,

I like your perspective - it rings of humility; thanks for sharing so openly.

I'm still chewing on, "What's important is that what we said or did caused hurt, which indicates that it was poorly communicated." Though I think I understand your intent here and mostly agree, I (an 'F' who has been known to apologize for stuff I didn't do at the drop of a hat out of fear of conflict) have been in the process of learning that sometimes truth hurts (me, and others) - even when it is communicated well, and in love. I think, too, about Jesus and how some of the blunt stuff he said (vipers, etc.) hurt and deeply offended those he was addressing. It sometimes even seemed to hinder reconciliation. Yet, his communication was perfect.

I'm certainly not saying that I think our communication ever is (perfect) - but at least our 'Standard' seems to show that human hurt can just as easily arise from perfect communication as it can from poor communication.

I love seeing, especially in the process of folks growing older, the wisdom of 'moving to the middle': Those who tend toward 'blunt' beginning to weigh their words and soften edges. Those who tend toward hiding from conflict, finding a voice and the courage to use it - valuing truth over their fear of offending. A good kind of balancing, I think.

Somewhat rambling I know - but thanks for jump-starting my critical thought processes for the day. :-) I enjoy your posts, Joey, and have found your honesty and sometimes 'bluntness' refreshing.

12/07/2010 8:28 AM  
Blogger Joey declared,

@Dstew, that may have been offensive enough to warrant an apology rejection.

@V, thanks for your feedback! I considered the same thing. I don't think it's possible to really apply this 100% across the board. You're right, there will be occasional cases where we really aren't in the wrong for someone's hurt, but I think - at least in my experience - these are the exception rather than the norm.

Side note: funny (or sad or confusing?) how you love seeing "the wisdom of 'moving to the middle'" while others lament it.

12/07/2010 10:06 AM  
Blogger Joey declared,

I just thought of another type of offense that I didn't address.

What about things we say in a very public forum? I'm not talking about things we say about a specific person publicly. I'm talking about just general statements, such as something we post to Twitter or Facebook or something we say with a group of friends. Do we take ownership of offense taken to things we say in the general public that aren't directed at any one person?

My inclination is probably not, at least not in most cases, but there's certainly the possibility that we should. It's all very situational so it's hard to really define. And regardless, I think I would still try to default to looking at myself if someone else takes offense to something I say in public.

12/07/2010 3:53 PM  
Blogger -V- declared,

Thanks for letting me know that you saw part of my comments as possibly sad or confusing. I'm not sure who 'others' are but am up for offering some clarification.

Though some might think of intentional behavioral or relational change due to reflection and consideration as 'selling out', I know lots of other people who see beauty in people being willing to change and work on softening unfinished edges as they mature. I'm one of them. Based on your post, I was thinking you were too. That's all I really meant.

Regarding your final comment, that's tough - I've definitely seen some (really long) online chains where the offense/apology/misinterpretation dynamic has been somewhat fruitful. But also many where the primary fruit seems to be just painful and confusing.

At some point, seems like it becomes helpful to contact an offended someone 'off line' to address via phone or email privately rather than hashing things out in public. That's definitely an introvert perspective though...

12/07/2010 4:47 PM  
Blogger Joey declared,

@V, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I didn't find your comment sad or confusing at all! I was trying to note the very different reactions that softening brings out,noted you noted in your last comment as well. Some prefer the rough edges while others rejoice at the softening. It's sad that not all rejoice and confusing for the person changing when reactions to that heart-molding are so varied.

Sorry, I guess I didn't word my initial response very well.

12/07/2010 4:54 PM  
Blogger Joey declared,

That should read, "as you noted," not, "noted you noted." The fun of typing on my phone while on the bus!

12/07/2010 4:56 PM  
Blogger -V- declared,

I gotcha, Joey - thanks for clarifying. I totally agree with your insight on peoples' responses to inner change too... If you were a middle-aged woman, I'd refer you to Sue Monk Kidd's 'When the Heart Waits'. She writes descriptively of experiencing others disappointment/irritation/offense (your "lament" was a good word) of internal growth - and the crucial importance of doing it anyway. Blessings to you as you consider these things! Hope you and Jamie and the babes have a wonderful Christmas season too...

12/08/2010 8:17 AM  
Blogger kristi noser declared,

Bless you Joeywhite. I recently witnessed an altercation which would have been so much improved if the offender would have said "I'm sorry I offended you, I apologize, it won't happen again." instead of trying over and over and over to defend their actions and words.
We have a saying in our house: "If you mess up, you 'fess up."

12/10/2010 3:27 AM  

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