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How to Handle Insensitive Comments

What to do when someone “puts their foot in their mouth” during a crisis.

It’s hard enough that friends, family, and even sometimes strangers say hurtful things when they find out you have or are going through a crisis. I say this as someone who has gone through personal and mass disasters, as well as someone who studies and helps others navigate crises professionally.

For example, after I was diagnosed with cancer, I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of thoughtless comments and questions. I know I’m not the only one who has had such experiences.

I’ve swapped stories with countless others undergoing radiation, chemotherapy, and surgeries who I have met since my cancer journey started that have had a similar experience. Many shared that they often felt unprepared for how to respond when other people put their “foot in their mouth.” Even though I am a psychologist, survivor, professor, and someone who researchers this sort of topic, I have struggled too.

Below are some ideas strategies for how to respond when others say something insensitive that I have found useful.

  • Set healthy interpersonal and relational boundaries with others. This isn’t just about words; it also means setting boundaries to maintain healthy and appropriate physical, emotional, and spiritual limits. Whether you decide to respond in the situation or not, remember that it is not your responsibility to have to repair the situation.
  • Try to perspective shift to see where the other person is coming from, even if they aren’t able to do so. I’ve often found people say dumb things more often than not out of not knowing what to say or how to say it. Still, that doesn’t always soften the blow or impact of what was said. Even if it was accidental, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt. It’s also important to remember that even if the person was well-meaning, you still have the right to be upset.
  • Use humor to diffuse the situation. They sometimes say that “laughter is the best medicine.” This has truly been the case in my situation. I find that making a joke or even leaning into the awkwardness has helped me cope with challenging interactions with others. At the same time, I also know there have been times where I’ve used humor in ways that aren’t healthy, choosing to mask my pain instead of expressing my frustration. Humor in such situations is like salt and pepper—using it too much can be not only unpleasant, but can be harmful.
  • Ignoring what others say can also be a healthy response sometimes. Not all words have the same impact, and the impact of words people say to us often depends on lots of factors (e.g., timing; context). Some words can easily be ignored or brushed off. There may also be times where it may be most helpful to your well-being to just change the subject altogether—while other times what someone says may feel like they cut through to our very core, leaving us feeling injured and shaken. If you feel like you need to respond, then do so, but it’s also okay every once in a while, to just let things slide because you know you don’t have the energy or bandwidth to deal with something someone else said.
  • Correct what the other person said, stand up for yourself, and make your needs known. Telling others what they said is hurtful or is not accurate is another way to deal with challenging situations caused by a thoughtless remark. This may be as simple as just acknowledging what was said, but may also involve educating the person or correcting the person, or even expressing anger. The goal is to be truthful about what has happened and to be authentic in your response.

The tips above helped me navigate uncomfortable interactions with others that I hope will be useful to you as well. By sharing, my intention hasn’t been to say this is how you should do it, but rather that some of these approaches might resonate and help you identify strategies that I hope you might find useful. Overall, as someone who has personally gone through disasters as well as professionally helps amidst mass disasters, I’ve learned there is no one “right” way to respond when others say or ask something they shouldn’t have.

More from Jamie D. Aten Ph.D.
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