A while back, I was at a social event with a group of friends. As I was leaving, one of them, a colleague and friend I have known more than 10 years, made a painful ethnic comment to me. I knew he meant nothing by it and I winced – I thought internally – but maybe my face revealed my surprise and even some pain. I didn’t say anything; I was leaving and I didn’t want to chill the atmosphere of the moment. But I thought about what he had said and it bothered me.
I didn’t know what to say or whether to say anything at all. I thought to myself, “If I say something that will taint our friendship, and maybe that’s an overreaction on my part. And, it was just one brief comment.” I said nothing. But what he said bothered me. I thought about it from time to time.
A few weeks later we met for a group lunch. By chance, I got there early. So did he. We said hello. Before I could even think of what to say, he said, “I’m glad we’re here first and it’s just the two of us. I want to talk to you. I said something when we were last together and it bothered me. I thought it might’ve hurt you.” He referred to his comment. Did I? If I did, I’m so sorry.”
I thought to myself, “What do I say?” This took courage and humility for him to raise it. I could pretend it didn’t bother me or I could show courage, look him in the eye, and explain why it did. I’m glad I chose the second option.
I said, “Yes, what you said did surprise me and it was painful.” And I explained why his remark jolted me. He said he hadn’t meant it to have that impact. It hurt him that it did. He didn’t mean to offend me. He said so, and I believed him. I thanked him for asking me. I told him he had increased my respect for him as a friend. We shook hands. I said, “Thank you for raising this. Let’s move on.” We have.
We all have our own personal characteristics and sensitivities. We live in a complex society where we have many individual and group qualities, personal issues, and identities. What’s critical in our workplaces and communities is for us to speak up when things bother us so they don’t poison our relationships. And when we think we’ve said something we shouldn’t have, as my good friend did, we need to acknowledge it and say we may have misspoken.
We have to have the ability to discuss these differences, work them out, and move on. That’s what I’ve been teaching, and I saw it in action, recognizing how difficult it is to apply in practice. And more to the point, I realized that when we do work things out like this, our understanding and respect for our friends and colleagues will only grow. That form of personal courage is what builds enduring bonds of trust.