I was insulted the other day. A senior director on the board of trustees of a high-rise building said I lacked technical education and experience. For a person who is an engineering graduate and has been in business for almost 40 years, that sounded very much at least like an insult.
It’s not the first time. The same senior director accused me of being out of touch and living in an “ivory tower.” A priest once called me a liar. Others have called me “stupid” and an “idiot.”
As we get older in our jobs, conflicts are inevitable. We will have disagreements with people we work with. There will be debates that lead to heated arguments. Almost always, the parties involved will be professional and will focus on the issues. Once in a while, however, the conflicts would escalate into quarrels that would result in name-calling and insults, and sometimes fist-fights.
People have gotten angry at me and have scolded me. Some of them I deserve for errors I made; some because I took a stand on an issue.
We as professionals know better not to insult others. Yet, it happens, sometimes unintentionally due to emotional outbursts, and sometimes unfortunately because the person doing the insulting is just plain bad.
We were taught that insults are wrong. Most religions tell us to respect our neighbours. Social and legal norms urge restraint and resolution with the help of third parties.
The latest trend is to exercise empathy, that is, to foster understanding of the points of view of others. Understanding others would cool any conflict down.
Exercising empathy is a skill. It requires practice and it takes time to master. There’s also no clear standard to know if one has even mastered empathy. We’d have to rely on the results.
In this cut-throat world we live in, we play to win. We therefore become defensive or frustrated when someone else disagrees with us and seems to be putting up barriers to where we want to go. When that happens, we sometimes lose our cool and we end up insulting others.
There are also people who just have that personality to insult others. It’s like they adapted a policy to insult others so as to overcome and step over them. Whatever we do or say, as much as we try to empathise, they just go on to insult us. We respond by either avoiding them or insulting them back. The first is an escape; the other leads to war.
There are people who don’t let insults affect them and are very good in cultivating relationships with difficult people. We call these people charismatic and gifted. We try to emulate them. But they seem to be in a class by themselves.
Insults, left by themselves, escalate conflicts and cause wars. We can avoid those who insult us or become like them and insult them back. Or we can somehow patiently learn and practice the skills of empathy and become impervious to insults.
It’s our call.