I've been wondering - what if we could learn not to be offended?

Being offended is a permanent possibility

I remember, a few decades ago when I was an apprentice facilitator, being taught that ‘being offended is a permanent possibility’. As facilitators, we became painfully aware of the importance of our own reactions to what happens within our groups. We were encouraged to own our own reactions and, as far as possible, to keep them out of the way of our participants. The processes we were engaged in were not for our benefit after all.

More recently, as I attempt to keep up with the findings of neuroscience and what that might tell us about ourselves I am taken back to the ‘being offended…’ comment. I often comment in my programs to the effect that I reckon I’m the master of unintentional offence. I know I can offend people without even trying!

I know for sure that my ‘being offended triggers’ remain very touchy and it’s a matter of constant awareness and discipline (and courageous help from others around me) to keep them in check. Or maybe I’m deluding myself that I manage that. Sigh!

So, what can one do?

Well, there are endless amounts of useful stuff published on this. Ever since philosophy was born (and long before that I guess) we have been working on this. I’m simply going to offer what could be a useful starting point for this potentially endless journey.

Success comes when three things overlap – our intention, our attention and our skills (flexibility).

So, start with intention. Make a commitment to overcome this pattern in your life. That might seem to be a big ask so remember to be kind to yourself as you go! It’s easy to beat ourselves up when we mess up.

Pay attention to, and take ownership of, your own tendency to become offended and incrementally become less likely to react badly. Don’t let yourself blame others for ‘offending you’.

Pay attention to, and take ownership of, your own ability to trigger offence in others. Be mindful of what you say and do. Don’t let yourself blame others for becoming offended.

Notice the ‘stories’ you make up about people and about situations. Do the stories help you or hinder you? Edit them to make them useful. They are, after all, your stories so you can rescript them as you wish.

Be a work in progress. Develop skills and flexibility in managing yourself and in responding to others.

Do not allow yourself – ever – to attack, label or shame another person. Our brains are wired to react badly to social isolation. Being labelled, humiliated or attacked kicks off some very nasty chemical releases in our bodies. (it's the same circuitry as fear and pain!)

So, try not to be the cause of such chemical releases in those around you.

There’s a lovely Sufi (I think) saying about this:

“Before you speak, let your words pass through these three gates:

At the first gate ask yourself, “is it true?”

At the second, ask yourself “is it necessary?”

At the third, ask yourself “is it kind?”

We can’t really go wrong if we apply that wisdom. Although people can still be offended by intended kindness – weird aren’t we.

Final note - The extreme end of being offended.

Look around. Humans – who are supposed to be smart, social animals with the ability to learn from our history continue to go to war and to commit genocide. How is this possible?

Well apparently it starts with a process of dehumanising (via attacking, invalidating and labelling) a group of others and when the leaders of a country run a campaign of dehumanisation we get tragic consequences – racism, segregation - everything, including genocide, becomes possible.

Think of the labels we hear being used in our own country and around the world. Consider the impact of any type of dehumanisation. We can be better than that.

P.S. And I'm not just talking about political correctness

Two great reference points:

  1. Television series “The Brain” by David Eagleman. Recently on SBS.
  2. Anything by Brene Brown. Author of “Daring Greatly”