Oasis blog: Said something wrong to someone? When they correct you, say thank you.
“If someone corrects you for using an offensive term, don’t be ashamed or get upset. Instead, thank them.”
This is a valuable lesson that keeps popping up in different EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) trainings and workshops I have attended at Aalto University - such as Sara Salmani’s Everyone Included lecture, Kamilah Majied’s EDI training for the Oasis of Radical Wellbeing team, Kasper Kivistö’s EDI session on LGBTQ+ at Aalto and Neuroleadership Institute’s Voice training for teams in WorkDay.
Language shapes the world where we live in. The emergence of a new vocabulary to expose bias and oppression is essential to dismantle the underlying unequal power structures. However, many of us may encounter feelings of being overwhelmed or even intimidated when faced with the constantly evolving vocabulary related to for example antiracism or LGBTQ+ rights. We make mistakes, that is inevitable. What matters is how we react when we are corrected.
Conflicts may arise when speakers who mean well accidentally use a wrong term and get corrected. The speaker feels misunderstood because their good intentions have been neglected. Sometimes, if the choice of word has been personally hurtful to them, people may correct others in a very direct way. What often happens is that the speaker highlights good intentions while the listener focuses on the negative impact.
How can we avoid such conflicts from happening?
One way forward is compassion, both towards yourself and towards the people around you. As someone who hears an offensive word being used, it’s good to keep in mind, that people rarely have bad intentions - we can all sometimes be clumsy with our words. However, we cannot rely on improving our EDI language skills only when we are corrected. We must proactively learn and find out about things ourselves. A good way to start is by checking out Aalto's Learning hub on diversity and inclusion!
Giving feedback is not easy especially if the target of the feedback is in a position of power over the giver of the feedback. Thus, remember to show gratitude towards the person who corrects you. They have confronted you because they believe that you are a person who they can find consensus with, regardless of the risk of a conflict.
Here are some tips on how to turn such situations into learning experiences instead of conflicts.*
As someone who gives feedback:
Try to avoid impulsive reactions. If the situation makes you feel emotional, it is all right to take the time to formulate your feedback.
Ask if this is a good moment to share your opinion and discuss.
Consider starting with some positive feedback e.g., by telling how the person has been doing well overall, and then that there is one specific issue you would like to talk about.
Consider your wording, e.g., “Has it occurred to you that someone can experience this matter like this?” and suggesting solutions, e.g., “What I’m hoping you might be willing to do is...”
Make sure to acknowledge the good intentions of the other person, not only the negative impact that has been caused by the mistake.
Be clear that you are not discussing the situation with others (if that is the case).
As someone who receives feedback:
Try to avoid impulsive reactions. If the situation makes you feel emotional or causes a defensive reaction, it is all right to take your time to response.
Try to acknowledge the negative impact that has been caused by the mistake, not only the good intentions you may have had.
Express that you are grateful for the feedback and assure that by having the conversation, your relationship with the person became deeper instead of damaged.
Be aware of the possible imbalance in power relations (age, gender, position at work, skin color, sexuality, etc.) and acknowledge the courage it may have taken the other person to speak up.
Try to look at the situation as a learning experience and thank the person who corrected you for teaching you something new.
Practice self-compassion – we all make mistakes, and we are all constantly learning new things.
In situations like these, to make sure the situation does not escalate into a conflict, both the giver and the receiver of the feedback have their role to play. We all have a lot to learn from each other. The fact that we feel safe in our daily environment to voice conflicting views and that we feel like our personal values are not affected by the mistakes we accidentally make, opens a door to the next level of learning and innovation.
Lessons learned: Let us try to be compassionate towards each other in this continuous learning process. Everyone makes mistakes. Let us be self-compassionate towards ourselves when we are the one that made the mistake.
* Adapted from Sara Salmani’s Everyone Included lecture, Kamilah Majied’s EDI training for the Oasis of Radical Wellbeing team, Kasper Kivistö’s EDI session on LGBTQ+ at Aalto and VOICE training for teams by Neuroleadership Institute
As the autumn term kicks in and we start to plan for the new academic year, it is worth remembering that, to have the energy to act on issues close to our hearts, we need to pay attention to self-care.