I worked with someone once who was deathly allergic to nuts. When she came to the company Christmas party and saw a snack bowl with trail mix – she left. She was allergic enough that if there was dust from the nuts on the other food or a table (or in the air!), she might end up in the ER. Now, she handled by “just leaving.” By excluding herself. I personally would have supported her (and encouraged) her to approach HR and ask for them to removing the offending snack. She still would have had to wait to re-enter the party (let the air clear/filter), but she could have joined the party.
No one would argue that someone with a bee-sting allergy has the right to react strongly when they are placed in a room where there is a bee. A strong reaction is expected and healthy – after all, they are defending themselves.
So why is it we can’t seem to view other reactions this way?
I could give a dozen examples of reactions not being validated. Just from my personal experience. And I won’t say I always think everyone else’s reaction is valid. The best manners are the hardest to master.
It depends so much on the situation. But the best rule I’ve found in life is to start from the assumption the person has a valid reason for their reaction. The strength of their reaction. By acknowledging they have a right to react at all, a lot of people will calm down almost instantly. A majority will apologize for the strength of their reaction. They will share the pain that caused that strength of reaction. And then it doesn’t matter what the trigger was:
- Do you know how many people have told me that my ideas and strategies are not being ignored and then steal them? Or at least get the credit when they say it?
- Do you know that I was once grabbed from behind and mugged/raped/attacked?
- Do you know how many guys have told me I’m “just being hysterical” when I say I need something in a relationship?
- Do you know that I’m allergic to a chemical that is put into most perfumes and when I inhale it, my breathing shuts down?
- Do you know that when I was seven I got lost and it took them two days to find me?
- Do you know that I was in a car accident when I was fourteen where doing just that is what caused it?
- Do you know my uncle cracked his sternum by not having someone spot them while lifting free weights?
- Do you know that I was mauled by a dog? I had to go through seven different surgeries to correct that damage.
- Do you know that I have leukemia as a kid and now needles bring me back to those weeks spent in the hospital?
- Do you know that I am barren and can never have kids of my own flesh and blood?
Which of these do you want to tell someone not to react for? Which one should tell them “sit down and stay quiet”?
My sister once helped me understand why someone may give a strong reaction to something I think it minor like this:
Imagine someone flicking your arm. It stings, but it’s over in an instant and passes. Now, imagine they do it a thousand times in a row. I bet 1,001 hurts a LOT. Like brings tears to your eyes. Maybe you finally turn and punch the person flicking you. Now, take that pain and make it emotional. Being told a thousand times you aren’t worth as much because you are a woman, or black, or gay, or whatever. And then someone says it that 1,001’th time. Yeah. They react strongly. They punch back.
You never know when you are the 1,001’st person. Hopefully, it was an accident. By validating that the person is probably reasonable to respond so strongly… maybe you learn how people are flicking each other and you can stop flicking others. Especially, when you did it by accident.
And no, there is no “yes sometimes reactions are unwarranted” in this post. Dealing with unhealthy responses is a totally different topic. This is the manners you portray when someone else is reacting strongly. Validate them. Tell them they are allowed to feel hurt. Tell them you know that 1,001’th flick hurt. Give them the grace and comfort you would want.