Sometimes Well-Intentioned People Say Dumb Things

Words matter; choose them wisely.

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 20, 2016
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2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
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“Some of my best friends are [fill in the blank].”

“I know exactly how you feel.”

“I don’t think of you as [fill in the blank].”

“That’s so gay” or “That’s so retarded.”

“What are you?”

Sound familiar? These are a few of the many “dumb things well-intended people say,” pointed out Maura Cullen, Ph.D., speaking to a packed, sitting-on-the-floor, laughter-filled concurrent session June 20 at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C.

“Sometimes we say stuff and we know we screwed up but we don’t know how we screwed up,” she noted.

Remember that childhood ditty—“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”? It’s not true.

“Words matter. We need to choose wisely,” said the author of 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say (Morgan James Publishing, 2008).

Often there is no ill intent, but “impact always trumps intent,” even when people don’t mean to be hurtful, she said. Sometimes people verbally trip over their feet trying to establish a level of familiarity with someone in a minority group by telling them “some of my best friends are ...”

The result, however, is the other person may feel he or she is treated as just a stereotype. The message they can hear is “If I know one of you, I know how to treat all of you.”

People also often stumble when, in trying to comfort someone, they say they know exactly how the other person feels.

“You don’t. This is a conversation-flipper; now we’re not talking about me [the injured party], we’re talking about you.” A better approach, she advised, is to respond with, “I’ve had something similar happen” or “I can’t even imagine what that feels like.”

Pile-On Principle

When you hear someone make a disparaging remark, start a conversation about how even offhand comments can be hurtful.

“These phrases are not intended as compliments. They’re always meant as disparaging remarks,” Cullen said.

“You can’t call everyone out at every moment. That would be a full-time job,” she acknowledged, but it’s important to find moments when you can educate people on the hurtfulness of micro-aggressions—those brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral and environmental daily indignities that many people face.

She recalled, as an example, her nieces and nephews using the phrase “That’s so retarded.”

Realizing she sounded like the uncool aunt, she nevertheless rebuked them. Their response was “We don’t mean anything by it. It just slips out.”

Would it “just slip out,” she asked, if they were volunteering at the Special Olympics? Likely not. Her advice: Apply that same discipline all the time.

Cullen has found herself in situations where she said something that was well-intentioned but dumb. However “until good people like you spoke up, I didn’t get it.”

Breathe, Acknowledge, Respond

Cullen advised attendees to use the breathe, acknowledge, respond (BAR) approach when they find themselves in heated conversations. And no, that doesn’t mean they hit a local watering hole, she wryly added. Instead:

  • Breathe—a deep breath relaxes you. It gives you time to form a cohesive thought instead of blurting out what may be an unfortunate remark. Plus, it is physically impossible to take a breath and talk at the same time.
  • Acknowledge what the other person has said. It shows you hear them; it doesn’t mean you are agreeing.
  •  Respond calmly. “Thought is the difference between ‘respond’ and ‘react,’ ” she said. Reacting “is more visceral.”

Following this strategy “has changed the quality of my life,” Cullen said, noting that she is less quick to jump into conversations.

“My whole job sometimes is simply to listen.”

 Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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