The following may offend you—if you feel strongly about your right to not be offended.
One of the reasons accountability in business languishes these days is because of how political correctness has gone too far in our world. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m a sensitive person with high standards for maturity and respect. Political correctness obviously arose as a reaction to insensitivity, but like most movements, it swings too far to the other extreme.
It may surprise some people to know, for example, that there’s no legislation in any government’s constitution in the world that guarantees the right not to be offended. How could there be? It’s entirely subjective. There’s a clever comedy bit that Steve Hughes does on the subject:
“Offensive” is defined as causing someone to feel deeply hurt, upset, or angry. Yet we also know that sometimes “the truth hurts.”
The moral question before our society is “What responsibility do we have to not offend others?” This is an enormous question, but I’ve got a simple answer for you. Keep reading.
Fundamentally, (except in cases of malicious intent, harassment, and hate speech) the issue comes down to one’s ability to bear discomfort. The greater one’s inability to bear discomfort, the more likely they cry, “I’m offended!” when exposed to an opinion with which they disagree. It is far more accurate and productive to instead vulnerably say, “Ouch.” This is more likely to begin an investigation into why.
A mature person doesn’t withhold their truth in fear of hurting others, nor do they sadistically enjoy telling it: they say what’s on their heart as vulnerably as they can and if it causes others to hurt, they hurt with them.
Because of the oversensitivity in our culture, however, I see managers avoid real accountability regularly. Here are truths I’ve sometimes waited for my clients to say for years:
- “I love you, and I’m terrified of losing you, but I think we need to face the reality that you don’t have the right skills for your job.”
- “I know we’ve been best friends for over a decade, but I just don’t think you’re the right fit for your position.”
- “I care about you a lot, and we’ve been through a lot together, but that mistake you made was too much, and I’m letting you go.”
- “I know we’re family, and I hope somehow we can maintain our relationship through this, but it’s not working anymore for you to be employed here.”
It’s time to uncollapse telling real, uncomfortable truths from the notion of “being offensive.” If you muster your deepest vulnerability to deliver an uncomfortable truth and the receiver is offended, it’s their problem, not yours. What you’ll find when you open your heart to embody that vulnerability is that you’ll feel uncomfortable, and this is usually what people are actually avoiding.
In other words, the discomfort people say they don’t want to cause others is only a small part of the story—what they’re really avoiding is their own discomfort, but telling themselves how much they care about others hides that fact.
Vulnerability solves the problem on both sides. A person vulnerably feeling the impact they may have on others automatically adjusts their delivery to minimize hurtfulness. And a person vulnerably feeling how that truth lands in them automatically has the ability to take responsibility for their own emotional reaction.
In the U.S., the public discourse is framed as free speech vs. sensitivity, which will forever be a polarity and creates division. Each party feels like a victim of the other. Frame the problem as a vulnerability one, and it joins both sides in responsibility and challenges them both to mature.