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Let's Talk: You are Told that YOU Have Crossed the Line

Let's Talk: You are Told that YOU Have Crossed the Line

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Bryan Stevenson (p. 17) xvii

It is true that we all make mistakes.  And we are so much more than our worst thoughts or worst past actions.  But sometimes our mistakes mean that someone has been hurt and sometimes deeply hurt.  From the perspective of the person who was harmed, whether directly or indirectly, it may not matter whether that hurt was intentional or unintentional.  

How someone can take responsibility for what they have done is a question many campuses are wrestling with today, and more options are available than just a few years ago. But even when approached one-to-one, it can be hard to know how to respond. Being confronted or even just being asked about our behaviors can bring up a lot of negative emotions such as shame and fear of being rejected or canceled. Taking responsibility for the impact of our actions or even just listening to the impact of our actions can be a difficult thing to do – it takes effort, and it takes courage just to listen.  

Breathe.  Listen.  Think.
Breathe:  Your body might start to feel panicky.  That’s OK.  Take deep breaths.  
Listen: It is hard to just sit and listen.  Try to understand what they experienced and the impact of your actions. Don’t interrupt.  
Think: This is serious, and it is natural to want to respond immediately. But take the time to digest what you just heard before responding.    

The first step of responsibility is knowing how to respond if someone does let you know that your actions affected them.  Here are some steps to consider if or when someone comes to talk with you:

Step One:  Listen  

People often do not know how to truly listen and typically only hear 25-50% of what was said. xviii Active listening is more than just listening to the words someone has said.  It requires paying attention and focusing on listening to understand, listening for the impact of your actions, and listening to learn.  It also means not interrupting until the person is finished with what they are saying.  You can let the person know you are listening to them through eye contact, non-verbal cues, and putting away your phone.  

This may be difficult for you, so be sure to breathe and ground yourself.  Listening to someone talk about how your action was hard for them is not easy.  While being defensive can be instinctive, focusing on where you are, listening deeply, and keeping an open mind and heart will be helpful to both of you.  

Step Two:  Acknowledge what you have heard

Instead of explaining why you did what you did, simply acknowledge what you have heard and the impact that your actions had on the other student.  If you feel it is needed, it is OK to ask clarifying questions that are open ended.  This can help convey that you were actively listening and the answers you hear may increase your understanding of what was said.  Regardless of your perspective of the experience, it can be incredibly healing to just acknowledge what you heard and the impact of what they felt.  And an acknowledgement does not necessarily mean an apology.  That is something to consider after the conversation is over, if that is what the other person was looking for or feels right for you.  

“I know this must have been hard to bring up.  Thank you.  You have given me a lot to think about.” 
“I can see how hard this has been for you.  No one else has ever cared enough to tell me about this.”  
“I know this is a lot and I want to respect your boundaries.   If I have questions, would it be OK to reach out to you about this?” 

Step Three:  Ask what the person was hoping for

After the person has finished sharing their experience, it can be helpful to directly ask if there is a way to repair the harm.  Is there anything that can be done to change the dynamics, to help them heal, to move beyond what did happen, or to make things right?   Did they have something in mind when they decided to talk to you?  You may not feel able to respond to their requests in the moment, but it is helpful to again acknowledge what they said.  

“What can I do to repair this?” 
“This is not your responsibility, but given what you just shared with me, what do you want as next steps?”
“Please let me know if there are any actions you would want to see from me.”  

Step Four:  Take time to consider what was said 

At the end of the conversation, you can say that you need time to reflect on what was said.  Again, you DON’T have to respond in the moment, but be sure to again acknowledge what you have heard, the impact your actions had on the person, and if both of you agree, find another time to talk.  

Step Five:  YOUR Next Steps

Consider the requests (if any) from the person who approached you.  You may or may not be able to do all that they ask, but you can think about your actions and the impact your actions had on those around you and consider a commitment to change (whether large or small).  And remember, you do not have to do this alone.  Take the time to seek out help and support – if you choose to make changes, this support can be important.

Final Thoughts on the Receiving End of Difficult Conversations

It can be hard to have someone tell you they felt negatively affected by something you did or said.  Sometimes you may feel responsible for what happened and other times you may feel defensive or disagree. Your best response is to listen and to acknowledge what you have heard. If it feels sincere, you can also show you care about them by thanking them for having the courage to talk with you.  You may want to apologize, or you may also want to ask for time to process what they shared.  This is an opportunity to reflect on your own behaviors, how not to put yourself at risk in the future, and ultimately ensure safe and more positive relationships for your own future. It will be equally important for you to get some support for yourself and identify any resources that you may need to help you along the way.  

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