Confronting a Loved One About Hurtful Behavior

Our loved ones, whether they’re friends or family, may feel that closeness allows them to push boundaries. Depending on the relationship, you may allow for borderline inappropriate jokes or teasing that may not be okay from other people. But what happens if they go too far?

What if their comments are offensive or the teasing becomes too hurtful? What if they make a racist or homophobic joke that you find distasteful? It may be difficult, but if it’s bothering you or hateful, it can be important to say something to them about their inappropriate remarks or behavior.

Preparing Yourself

If you’ve decided to say something to a loved one about inappropriate behavior, it can be tough to broach the subject with them. There are certainly ways that the conversation could get ugly, but if it’s bothering you, you owe it to yourself to say something. The best way to have a productive conversation is to prepare. This can help you to have control of the situation so that you’re able to get your point across without it spiraling into an argument.

When you’re preparing for the conversation, here are some tips that can help you compose yourself and allow the conversation to go smoother.

  • Ease your expectations — Don’t expect that one conversation will fix everything. Instead, think of this as the start of a process where you voice your concerns, set boundaries, and find a way forward.
  • Write down your thoughts — Organize your thoughts and the important points you want to make. This doesn’t have to be a script you follow. It could just be key points. Having a map to follow can help you stay on track, even if the conversation gets a little heated.
  • Don’t assume malice — Consider their point of view. They may not intend to be hurtful, which can broaden your perspective and give you a more accurate approach to addressing your concerns.
  • Focus on actions — You’ll be less likely to make your loved one defensive if you target the actions that upset you, not them. For example, “that type of joke is offensive,” instead of “you’re racist for making that joke.”
  • Focus on how the actions affect you or others — By putting the focus on you, instead of them, they’ll be less likely to get defensive or feel guilty. If your mother is commenting on recent weight gain, tell her how it makes you feel, not that they’re being mean.

Having the Conversation

It may be difficult but remember — being able to have these difficult conversations are a sign of a healthy relationship and can even make weaker relationships stronger. Once you feel you’re prepared to talk with your loved one, there are two ways you can go about it. You can wait for them to act or confront them at a time of your choosing. Telling them you want to talk can give you more control and allow you to pick the environment in which you have the conversation. You may not want to have the conversation in front of a group, for example. It may put them on edge right away since they know something is wrong.

Confronting them when the act happens can show them the exact behavior you have a problem with, but also cedes some control in their favor. You may be forced to have the discussion in public or they may feel ambushed because of the suddenness of the conversation. These can all put your loved one on the defensive from the start and risk the conversation turning heated. Beyond that, here are some other suggestions to help keep the conversation productive and positive:

  • Stay calm — No matter what, try to keep your cool as best you can. If you start to get angry, the risk of it going from a conversation to a full-blown argument increases greatly.
  • Be clear and direct — Don’t dance around the situation. State that the behavior upsets you and why it upsets you. This includes what you want out of the conversation. Set defined boundaries and your expectations going forward.
  • Be positive and seek results — You should always try to reach your desired outcome. It can help to view the conversation as a shared goal, something you can work toward together. This keeps it from feeling like a lecture or like you’re just attacking them.
  • Be open — It’s important not to shut down everything they say immediately. With the example of a mother making weight-gain comments, she may not be making fun of you, but concerned about your health. This gives you room to find constructive, less hurtful ways to share those concerns.
  • Know when to call for backup — In some cases, having a neutral third party to mediate or someone else who dislikes the behavior to back you up can make all the difference. This shows it’s not just you that feels that way or that you’re not being unreasonable.

After Your Talk

The specifics of your next steps will depend on what you decided during the conversation, but whatever you decide, holding your loved one accountable is key to making sure your feelings were heard and the changes stay. Stick to any goals you set. If they promised to stop a behavior, and they don’t, make sure you call them out. If you set up a way to stop behaviors, like a code word that signals to them that a joke isn’t funny or to knock something off, hold them to that.

If they aren’t willing to put in the work, though, you may need to establish personal boundaries or end the relationship, as sad as it may be.

Take note, if they refuse to change or handle the conversation poorly, you may be dealing with a toxic relationship. While this isn’t great news, it may be salvageable with help. If they aren’t willing to put in the work, though, you may need to establish personal boundaries or end the relationship, as sad as it may be.

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If a loved one is displays hurtful behaviors or beliefs you can’t associate with, it doesn’t have to be the end of the relationship. Having an important conversation with them can set you both on the path to a stronger, more enriching connection.