The Art of Not Taking Offense

By Steve McKee

A colleague of mine recently sent a text introducing me to a friend of hers. I was rushing into a meeting when I saw it, so I responded briefly but enthusiastically (I thought) about my interest in meeting the other person.

Unfortunately, my colleague misread my response and took offense. Thank goodness she circled back with me privately to ask about it and we were able to clear things up.

I wonder how many times something like that happens where there is no back channel, no commitment to the relationship, no certainty (or even presumption) that the other person is acting in goodwill. How often do we take — or create — unnecessary offense?

Too often. And it’s as unproductive as it is unpleasant.

Let’s face it: If you’re a leader, you’re going to get criticized, both fairly and unfairly. It goes with the job. The last thing you need to do is take offense from someone’s wayward text, hurried email, ill-advised comment, or snarky tone. Especially given how modern technology makes it easy to misread intent.

Most experts say upwards of 60% of communication is non-verbal. Whatever the actual number may be, there’s no question that many cues to the meaning of our messaging come from body language and tone of voice. Sometimes we misread someone’s intent even when we’re communicating in person, but when the channel is a phone call, an email or a text the context is often completely missing. Hence, offense.

What’s a leader to do? There’s an old-fashioned word that rarely gets used anymore: magnanimity. It’s the ability to rise above petty insults and arguments, or as one dictionary artfully puts it, “loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity.” Boy do we need more of that in our culture today.

My wife and I have been married for 33 years. Through the course of our marriage we have, more often than we would like, offended each other. But we can count on one hand the number of times one of us has, in a moment of pique, tried to hurt the other. Almost every time we’ve had an issue it’s been because of a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Since we are both committed to the relationship, we “enter the danger” and clear things up. As a result, our relationship grows stronger.

I have experienced the same effect regularly with clients, colleagues and employees. Almost every time offense has been given or taken, it has been unintentional (or at least soon regretted by the offending party). As we make the effort to clear things up and put them right, we strengthen our relationship. Choosing instead to stew on the offense — intended or not — may feel good in the moment but makes for a very small circle of friends.

As a leader, you can’t afford that. There will be those few people who truly do oppose your efforts and actively work against you; they are difficult enough to deal with. In those (hopefully rare) times when you unintentionally create offense, you must take the initiative to put it right. But you will also be offended — regularly. It’s important that you don’t allow animosity to take root in your mind and fester where no harm was intended. That’s what magnanimity is all about.

Somebody once told me that two people banging heads like hammers does little more than create sparks; someone needs to be willing to be the anvil. If, as a leader, you can absorb the blow, it almost always beats the consequences of flying off the handle.

Miscommunication is a bane of business. A leader must never let it gain the upper hand. It’s easy to take offense and allow resentment to take root. But if you want to get things done, if you want to influence people, you have to maintain relationship — often by bearing trouble calmly, disdaining meanness and pettiness, and displaying that noble generosity.

Old anvils are rarely museum pieces; they’re chipped and dented and dinged. But they outlast hammers and enable works of art.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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