Wow!  You are in a meeting or having a hallway conversation at work and someone just said something really offensive. 

The offensive statement might have been about you or someone else in the room or an entirely different group of people. 

Maybe it was thrown out as a joke – but it is not funny.

What do you do?

Deciding how to respond

We’ve all been in these situations.  How do you respond? 

Do you freeze up or ignore the offensive comment?  Do you scold the offender?  Do you yell or insult back?  Do you calmly address the inappropriate statement? 

To some extent, it might depend on the situation – who it is, your reporting relationship, the extremeness of the comment, etc. 

Regardless, it is hard to think of the best response in the tense moment, unless you have a strong response ready. 

Be prepared with this phrase

“I’m surprised you are comfortable saying that.”

Consider adding this phrase to your toolkit, “I’m surprised you are comfortable saying that.” 

Deliver that statement in a calm voice with a stony expression. Then wait – let the silence grow.

The offender will be uncomfortable with the silence and likely hem and haw.

You make your point and hopefully they will learn from the discomfort. 

The statement is not inflammatory, and it does not accuse someone of being terrible.  But it does address the issue and puts responsibility back on the offender to respond. 

Find your power by using this simple phrase and letting silence follow. 

A version of this article was published on Science of Working as “Say What” How to respond to an offensive comment” on April 22, 2019.


  • Ann Howell

    Executive Coach

    Howell Leadership Science

    I write about research-supported workplace topics and improving workplaces. I'm also experimenting with humor writing in my Level 50 Life series. Be warned - this is an experiment, and explosions, or at least bad jokes, could occur at any time.