Communication SOS: What did you just say to me?! How to respond skillfully to hurtful comments

Angry twenty something couple yelling at each other

Everyone, at some point in their lives, will have an unpleasant encounter with someone who will make an unkind comment. You stand there as any number of thoughts and feelings rush in: “How could you say that?!,” “I don’t deserve that!” You may even freeze, speechless, muscles tense, flooded by emotion.

It’s tough to respond gracefully in these situations, but you can certainly learn with the following tips.

1. Begin now by radically accepting (accepting with your entire being) that you will likely encounter people who will make hurtful comments. Accepting this will allow you to prepare for the moment, whenever that will be. Thus, instead of spending time ruminating about what should be or why people shouldn’t do this or that, which only prolongs the pain you feel, you can acknowledge that this is the reality and move on to step two.

2. Get grounded. When people are flooded by emotion it’s incredibly difficult to think clearly; we are on high alert. In those moments we are most often impulsive and risk responding to an unkind comment with an equally unkind comment, or missing an opportunity to set effective limits. Getting grounded allows you to decrease the intensity of your emotions and gives you time to decide how you will respond. This increases the probability that you will respond effectively.

So, how do you get grounded? Try feeling the weight of your feet touching the ground and taking some breaths at the same time. Relax into your body. No need to rush. The other person will either wait for your response or walk away.

3. Now, there’s an idea. Perhaps you should walk away from this situation . Yes, walk away. Many of our unpleasant encounters will be with people we likely will never see again or will see infrequently. If you’ll never see them again, well, that’s that. If you’ll see them infrequently then walking away will give you a chance to consider how to limit or manage future interactions. Try saying “Thank you.” And then walk away.

If you’ll see the person often (e.g., they’re a colleague or your partner) walking away will give you the opportunity to plan how to manage future interactions. Some of you may already have someone in mind as you read this. In that case, imagine yourself interacting with them (or role-play with someone) and using some of the following suggestions.

4. Delay your response. If walking away isn’t wise (e.g., you’re talking to your boss) or if you’re still too upset to respond effectively after grounding then tell the person that you will need time to think about the topic and will respond at a later date. You can say something like “I need some time to think about that. Can we talk about this again tomorrow?” Remember that whenever you delay you must genuinely return with a response or else you risk appearing disingenuous. If you are procrastinating, return to step two.

5. Respond to the emotion and delay. Tell the person “I can see that you are upset, anxious, sad, etc. right now. Let’s talk about this later.”

6. If someone is putting you down as a person, acknowledge what you can agree with, and ignore the rest. You can agree in part. For example, “You’re right. I was distracted when you were talking to me.” Agree in probability: “You may be right that I am often distracted.” Or agree in principle: “If I didn’t listen to you as often as you say I do, it would make it hard to communicate.”

Practicing these tips will save you some suffering and have you well on your way to responding effectively during challenging interactions.

All the Best!

Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., McKay, M. (2008). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. California: New Harbinger Publications.
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets (second edition). New York: Guilford Press.