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How (and why) not to take offence

9/2/2017

It seems that one of the less endearing features of the times we live in, is the way in which people are quick to take offence (even to seek offence). Often that is fed by unhelpful stories about the other. But to take offence is to ensure that the unhelpful story is strengthened and perpetuated: from a ManyStory perspective, it is a poor strategy.  

 

 

In St Mark’s Gospel there is an extraordinary story: the encounter between Christ and a Syrophoenecian woman. She is there to ask a favour: she wants her daughter cured. But Christ addresses her in what must have seemed a very insulting way, referring to the fact she was a pagan, not a Jew: “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”

 

It would have been wholly understandable if she had taken offence, and stormed off; and imagine the story she would have had about ‘that Jewish rabbi’ had she done so. But she did not. She remained focused on her goal, and responded, with great quick wittedness (and humility): “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.

 

 And Christ replied: “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.”  So now she leaves, and her daughter is cured: and her story about Christ will be significantly more positive, of course.

 

I heard another story, some years ago, from an ACAS officer (ACAS being the government's Arbitration, Conciliation and Advisory Service). We were discussing negotiating, and in particular the Harvard model. He said he had once seen one of his colleagues, Phil,  demonstrate the principle of Separating the People from the Problem, in a truly brilliant way.

 

 

They were working on a bitter industrial dispute, and in a recess from negotiating with entrenched union leaders, the boss of the employing organisation turned on his colleague, Phil, and abused him, profanely, for being too ready to listen to, and sympathise with, the striking workers.  

 

Phil would have been well within his rights to say ‘You have no right to talk to me like that; I’m a government employee, working as best I can to bring this to a resolution…’ etc etc.

 

Instead, he treated the attack on him as an attack on the problem, and said something like: “Yes, it’s really tough at the moment.  We’re going to have to work so hard together to end this strike and get people back to work.

 

Apparently, it really worked seamlessly, and the boss carried on talking about the difficulties of the situation and what they would have to do to resolve it. For that was what he was truly angry about; his abuse of Phil had merely been an unskilled expression of his frustration.

 

Both of these are occasions when taking offence would have been easy; but unproductive. Whereas by managing their stories about themselves and their interlocutors, both protagonists, the Syrophoenecian Woman, and Phil from ACAS, got better outcomes, and created better stories for the future.

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