Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 7;   February 13, 2013: Preventing the Hurt of Hurtful Dismissiveness

Preventing the Hurt of Hurtful Dismissiveness

by

When we use the hurtfully dismissive remarks of others to make ourselves feel bad, there are techniques for recovering relatively quickly. But we can also learn to respond to these remarks altogether differently. When we do that, recovery is unnecessary.
A flame arrestor of the type that is required on gasoline cans in the United States

A flame arrestor of the type that is required on gasoline cans in the United States. Flame arrestors are used in many applications, including fuel storage, coal mining, and liquor production. They function by forcing the flame front through channels too narrow to support flame. Even though they are required on consumer gasoline cans, the manufacturer of over 70% of all such cans in the U.S., Blitz USA of Miami, Oklahoma, doesn't provide flame arrestors with their cans.

On November 9th, 2011, Blitz USA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after having spent more than $30 million defending dozens product liability lawsuits involving consumers killed or injured by flames or explosions while using their containers. Although the absence of flame arrestors likely contributed to at least some of these incidents, media coverage of the case has included examples of hurtfully dismissive remarks. Some are of the type that don't actually define their targets. One example: in a video report produced by KOAM-TV, as reported by The Legal Examiner of Orlando, Florida, the anchor, Dowe Quick, says at the end of the segment, "Hard to imagine some people don't understand the dangers of mixing gasoline and fire." It is indeed hard to imagine, especially in the case of Firefighter Chad Funchess, who spent over four months in a medically-induced coma after his Blitz gas can exploded while he was filling up his chain saw. One might reasonably expect firefighters to be aware of the dangers of mixing gasoline and fire. Image courtesy Edwards and Ragatz P.A.

In exploring the causes and consequences of hurtfully dismissive remarks, we began with recognizing them. Then we showed how reframing them can help limit hurt by giving targets of dismissive remarks a way to understand them that includes the full reality of the remark, the offender, and the context in which the remark appears.

We now turn to a perspective that can actually produce an experience of a minor bump instead of deep emotional hurt, if it doesn't prevent the experience of pain altogether. In this approach, targets reaffirm their humanity by focusing on what defines their own humanness. Here are four insights that help.

Inadvertent and intentional dismissiveness are different
Even though none of us can read minds, we tend to assume that hurtfully dismissive remarks are intentional. Many are. For example, the probability of intentionality is high for repeat offenders. But before taking action, it's worth verifying intentions — privately, if possible.
If the remark is unintentionally hurtful, target and offender can often reach a new understanding that strengthens their relationship.
The offender's words don't define the target
What the offender says is merely an assertion, or even less — an insinuation. It isn't proof in itself. It doesn't define the target. Targets do better when they recognize false assertions and insinuations as false.
Others might overhear the remark, but how they respond to it is their choice. People are free to receive information and conclude whatever they feel is appropriate. Targets must accept this freedom that others have, but targets need not accept the content of the dismissive remark.
Targets are responsible for their own beliefs, as others are for theirs
Targets are Addressing the real problem
works better than
addressing the wrong problem
responsible for their own beliefs about themselves. Targets who know that a remark is misleading or wrong have all the tools they need to reject the remark, at least internally. Dismissive remarks can't directly harm targets who truly believe the remarks are bogus.
What can be problematic is that others might be misled by the remarks, but that's a different problem.
Addressing the real problem works better than addressing the wrong problem
Confronting the offender might be helpful if the bystanders witness the confrontation and accept the target's position. But confrontations can often produce yet more hurtful remarks. And because confrontations appear to be self-serving for the target, many bystanders discount the target's counter-assertions. To others, the whole thing looks like a brawl, especially when the confronter (the target) is humorless, or worse, angry.
Confronting the offender in the workplace context rarely helps. Instead, approach bystanders personally. Deal with their willing acceptance of false insinuations directly. That's the real problem.

Finally, there is the question of organizational power. If the offender is more powerful than the target, the target's options can be very limited. Moving on is often best. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: On Badly Written Email  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone by PolycomAnd on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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