Tools and Strategies

I Didn't Mean It Like That

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Challenging Your Own Biases

Everyone, even those who may make sincere efforts to be aware of their use of language, may find themselves inadvertently using language or making insensitive comments that hurt others. While the intent may have been benign or even neutral, the impact of the words may deeply affect the listener enough for him or her to respond. In such situations, it is easy to get defensive and to say, “That’s not what I meant” or “You’re taking it the wrong way.” However, recognizing that all people have developed biases, consciously and unconsciously, through socialization, education and media exposure, this can be an opportunity to “unlearn” bias and to check the stereotypes or misinformation being held. Below are some guidelines if you are accused of prejudicial language.

1. Acknowledge your own feelings.

Note how being accused makes you feel. Accusations of prejudice can bring up a variety of emotions including hurt, frustration, anger, resentment and guilt. Take time to explore and address your feelings before taking action.

2. Acknowledge the person's comments and feelings.

Making sure the person feels heard is the first step to effective communication about the issue at hand: “I understand that you feel my words were prejudiced or unfair, and that concerns me.” Gather information. Ensure that you understand the person’s perception. Whether or not the perception is based on reality, it is important to remember that it feels real to the person and needs to be addressed. Remember that the effects of prejudice are cumulative. It may be that the person had multiple incidents over time where they experienced bias and their reaction to you is based upon this cumulative experience.

3. Assess the situation.

Based on your observations and conversations, determine the person’s underlying needs. Respond with respect. Understand that even though your behavior may not have been intended as biased, it was perceived as biased. Try to avoid becoming defensive since defensiveness can block communication. Use the conflict as an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings.

4. Do not immediately dismiss the accusation.

Look at the situation and yourself honestly. If it turns out that your behavior was consciously or unconsciously prejudicial or unfair, allow yourself to reflect on the incident. Be willing to acknowledge what happened and modify your behavior accordingly. Remember that all people have biases. Being willing to admit when you are wrong is a powerful strategy to promote a respectful, inclusive environment.

5. Prioritize impact over intent.

Regardless of whether your words or actions were intentionally biased or offensive, the affected person is still harmed. That’s why it is critical to prioritize impact and acknowledge the harm that was caused. Focus less on what your intent was and more on how the person was impacted by your words or actions. You can learn more using this resource