Are you or do you know someone who gets defensive easily? You’re often surprised by their reaction – they take things personally, are easily offended, and make things about them. Sound familiar? The other side of this is being the person whose feelings are easily hurt.
Whether you are in a marriage that is struggling, just trying to get through your workday, or attempting to get along with your teenagers without raising your voice, defensiveness is something to watch out for as it can ruin relationships. A number of years ago during the holiday season, I stood in my kitchen, laptop on the counter, working my way through several open tabs with Christmas cookie recipes. I’d been to the store for more butter twice already, as I had miscalculated how much I’d need. Discovering I was running low yet AGAIN, I quipped a quick Facebook status, something like, “How many pounds of butter have YOU been through this holiday baking season?” in an attempt to start a light-hearted conversation with friends about the madness of the season in kitchens around the country.
I drove to the store, grabbed the butter, returned home, and when I logged back into my laptop, my Facebook status had a long stream of dialogue, mostly conflictual in nature, with verbal assault directed at me by one individual who was clearly not happy. Some of my followers had risen to my defense, and I felt the heat in my chest start to rise as I read through the fight I unintentionally started.
For a while, as this was back when Facebook was relatively new, this became known as “the Great Butter Incident” among my family and close friends who witnessed it. Obviously, this was well before the current age, when this morning’s popular meme is “so yesterday” by this afternoon.
Anyway, I remember feeling a few odd things when this happened. I remember my first primary emotion was anger. Underneath that, was embarrassment and confusion. The person who had taken offense started off her rant with something like, “HOW DARE YOU …” then something about how not everyone has people to make cookies for, could afford butter, even has access to it, or whose family members are in the service and won’t even be home for Christmas… or something to that effect.
My words had clearly triggered her. Some people came to my defense and shot insults back at her, others were kind, but what was shocking was the length and depth of the dialogue that occurred in a 15 minute run to the store for a pound of butter.
She and I went back and forth a bit, my sole purpose was to make her feel heard and in the end she admitted she was feeling lonely, had some other personal stuff going on, and my comment set all that off. I’ll never forget it.
This winter, I had a somewhat similar experience when one of my college students went off on me, highly offended that I was teaching about some of the differences in communication behaviors and perceptions between men and women. I believe she started her rant with, “HOW LONG ARE YOU GOING TO KEEP TALKING ABOUT THIS?” I said something like, “Can you tell me more about that? It seems like you’re, I don’t know, something,” to which she replied that she was highly offended that I would speak about any kind of gender differences and she felt the classroom was hostile and she didn’t feel safe there. Or something like that. I remember letting her know I’d move on, but that I wanted to see her after class.
I remember being stunned. But both situations were really good for me. After class, my student proceeded to give me an even more personalized verbal assault where she made comments about my age, my intellect, and my clear lack of understanding of current culture. She said she hated sitting in my class and being “subjected to my values.” I asked her what values I subjected her to. I then got a heated earful about how I “divorce shamed” by talking about my husband, and she mentioned, “not everyone has that.” She let me know that if she was offended (because she was older than everyone in the class – also not true, btw) everyone else in the class was also offended.
I remembered mentioning being married and sharing two small stories from my family life with the class, but I didn’t proselytize, and she didn’t accuse me of being religious but said she thought I might be. I wondered if she was right about offending the other students, so I did an anonymous survey with the class, asking my students how they felt about what happened, and if I had offended them – they were ALL upset with the student who had the outburst, and no, they weren’t offended). She also lodged a complaint against me, and since I had done the survey, I shared it with my boss, and she totally had my back.
Both situations were interesting experiences. I had to actively choose to interact more with these individuals, and I learned a few things from the exchanges. Both were growthful. So here we go…
- No matter what you say, it can offend someone else, and the answer isn’t to avoid ruffling feathers and not speaking your truth, but rather to be respectful, aware, and even sometimes expecting offense. We get emotional when we don’t know it could happen. (Think, Keep your sword drawn, and your shield up, no matter who you are talking to, unless it is God, because people aren’t perfect.)
- What people take offense to is almost always more of an indicator of where they are wounded and immature than about where you are insensitive – BUT, you could also be insensitive, so be open to the possibility and humbly explore it.
- People that are easily offended have often misperceived what you said. Sometimes they didn’t even remotely hear (or read) what you said. Their internal filter is so loud, it overshadows everything.
- How we respond to someone else’s offense says a lot about US and where we are in our own maturity and healing process. Think about it – it doesn’t matter who got offended first – if we get offended at all, we need to look at our own character.
- The best response to another’s perceived offense is apologizing for what is ours to own and having compassion for them in their wounding. Often they don’t even know they are wounded, and won’t appreciate being told.
- Leaders take responsibility for their part – and there is always something we could have done better. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this sometimes, depending on how close I am to the other person. If love is involved, sometimes I want them to apologize and own their part, too. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen, right? So we still have to take the high road, focusing on what God has for us alone.
In the case of my student, I apologized for not setting up the information in a way that potentially might have made it easier for her to understand why I was talking about gender differences with regard to bias and perception. I also recognized that even though I had done a good job in the logic and ethical explanation of why I was talking about it, I hadn’t appealed to the emotion of all of my students to motivate them to understand the relevance to them personally.
As a result of my interactions with her, I’m of the opinion that it wouldn’t have helped anyway, as the survey revealed she had a reputation for being a bully, outspoken and aggressive in her behavior elsewhere. Even knowing that, it’s still true that I could have done a better job and I can own my part. I was also clear with her I wouldn’t tolerate any further outbursts in class, and she was welcome to leave if she felt herself getting upset again. Having a boundary here helped me respect myself, the class, and her.
So what can we take away from all this? I mean, you’re just trying to get along with the coworker that turns your good news about your weekend into how he had a crummy one, etc., or trying to stop the negative cycle with your husband or teenager, right?
Here it is: We measure our maturity by what upsets us.
If Victor Frankel can live through the Holocaust and be thankful for a crust of bread in his pocket, we can surely learn to be more patient with others. Love is patient because it doesn’t demand others grow into someone they aren’t able to be yet, just to please us.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Bottom Line: Even when it is someone else who is offended, we need to check our response and engage with God over our reactions so we don’t react the same way. We can’t change other people, and it is pointless to try. Having boundaries is necessary, also, so that we don’t become doormats, and only apologizing for what’s ours to own is important.
What about you? What sets you off? How do you handle other people when they are offended?
Love to you,
Just an FYI … If you want to learn how to have these skills play out in an impactful way, consider joining us at our Deflating Defensiveness Women’s Retreat June 27-30 here in Milford, Ohio. This is the LAST WEEK to register. If you have a tough marriage or parenting situation, if you lead women’s ministry or are a pastor’s wife, or if you just need some negotiation skills for your crazy work life, you might benefit from the skill set to turn conflict into connection. Pray about it, and join us if you feel led. And if you’re a pastor’s wife, please choose the group rate option, even if you are coming by yourself.