Zen and the art of dealing with insults

This traditional Zen story is called The Gift of Insults.

There was once an old man known for being able to defeat any challenger. His reputation extended throughout the land and many gathered to study under him.

One day a young warrior arrived at the old man’s village. He was determined to be the first to defeat the great master, since he had both strength and the ability to notice and exploit an opponent’s weakness.

The old master gladly accepted the young warrior’s challenge. As the two faced one another, the young warrior began to hurl insults at the old master. The verbal insults went on for hours, yet the old master merely stood there motionless and calm. Finally, the young warrior exhausted himself. Defeated, he left.

The great master’s students gathered around the old man. “How could you endure such an indignity?” they wondered. “And how were you able to drive him away?”

“If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it,” the master replied, “to whom does the gift belong?”

The art of dealing with insults

The Conflict Pivot
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What would it mean for your life, your relationships and your workplace if you could choose to refuse acceptance of an insult “gift,” without damaging the other in return? What would it make that possible for you?

In my own life, I take a three-step approach to deal with insulting behavior by others and I teach my clients how to do something similar (though personalized to them). Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’m referring to insults from people with whom I am likely to have more than a few seconds’ contact.

I recently had the chance to put my approach to the test when I received an email tirade from a mediator (of all people!) I’ve never met. Here’s the approach I used:

  1. Bring my curiosity to the conversation. I experienced her first email as bellicose and set it aside to get myself some perspective. Then I returned to it and thanked her for her genuine attempt to offer me feedback about something I’d written. Though ill-delivered, she had gone out of her way to tell me her frustrations, and that counts for something. I then asked for more information to help me understand her frustration. In so doing, I also offered her the chance to change her approach, not by asking her to, but by modeling a kind reply.
  2. Accept what is mine to own and deflect what is not. My emailer did not choose to model my reply’s demeanor and I found her second email to be more insulting than the first. It truly tested my good will. I walked away for at least 30 minutes and played with our dog. Before I replied, I consciously reminded myself that I can accept feedback that’s reasonable (even if delivered unreasonably) and reject what is beyond my control or truly not mine to own. My reply to her, though terse, followed those principles.
  3. Choose not to accept the insult. I received numerous follow-up emails from her, some with additional insults and some with increasingly plaintive remarks about my lack of response. I read each of them carefully, and very consciously elected not to reply. With each one, I reminded myself that her words said more about her than they could ever say about me. And with that thought, I let each one go. I could feel the weight lifting from my shoulders.

I am just like you. I can get hooked by words I find insulting of me or of people and things I care about. But when I view each as a test only for me with myself, and not a competition I must win over the other person, I can already feel the shift in reaction. It’s a beautiful feeling.

How do you unhook yourself from another person’s insulting behavior?

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  1. Kathy Salvucci says

    I attended your lecture at the Womens Leadership Conference back in June and immediately signed up for your e-mail notices (I enjoyed the limited time at the conference – could have been there all day) I have enjoyed your material and found it helpful lately with both personal and work issues that I have faced recently… bottom line to take a deep breath and face your fears is a clear message and each day I find your links to be helpful in facing my fears and dealing with issues

    Thank you…

  2. Jason says

    I think your example used here and your actions were very admirable.

    However, lets be practical:

    If this person has been hurling these verbal insults at you face to face you would not have been able to leave the room for 30 minutes and then return in a calm demanour.

    The problem with insults is that usually catch you by suprise in a crowded room with a number of onlookers and participants.

    The person hurling the insult is usually at ease in a public or social setting and thus has experience in disrupting your 'calmness'.

    Thus, I feel your example is limted as it it much easier to put some distance between you and the insulter via the world wide web than in person.

    What are your thoughts on this?


  3. says

    Jason, thanks telling me my actions were admirable — but they weren't mine! The Gift of Insults is a zen parable to teach the lesson of learning how to manage your own reactions in instances just like you described — that's what I teach people to do and it is learnable. The point of the story was that what you choose to think about an insult influences your reaction — that you have the power to choose what to believe, what to accept, and how to respond. Hope that helps!

  4. says

    In my opinion, when someone insult you, take some time to analyze the way he or she is thinking about the insults he/she started. Once you know the direction of his/her mind towards you, you will know how deal with him.. it's quite easy to read others mind if you able to calm yourself down…

  5. Mary says

    I do just about the same as you. I try to give myself some time to reflect on the insult, and separate the truth from emotions. Then I reflect on the truths, and try to find the lesson. I feel so much better afterword– I even feel a little grateful for the insult. If there is no truth in the insult, or it is based on something I cannot control or I do not wish to own, I let it go.

  6. says

    Mary, it's impressive that you're able to do this — and shows a good ability to manage your reactions the way you'd like and can feel good about later. It's a freeing thing to let go of insults that we can't and shouldn't own.

  7. Maria says

    How do you deal with the typical insulting greeting from the tactless like…Isn't that too tight for you? What happened to your face (for those with let's say a scar from an accident)? What dark eyebags you have!

  8. says

    Hi, Maria – I do what the master in the story did – I ignore the tactless, hurtful greeting. Here's why:

    1 – The greeting says far more about the speaker than it does about me. It says they're tactless, or worse — deliberately trying to hurt my feelings.

    2 – People tend to do what works for them. If I "bite," and acknowledge their snide comment, then I'm them some kind of satisfaction and indirectly encourage them to continue with the habit.

    3 – If I know in my heart that their snide greeting says much more about them than it does about me, then why bother to take even a second of my precious life to respond to it? It's my life and I get to decide how I spend it.

    Here's a tip for what to do instead of biting the nasty morsel they're offering you (hint: the tip doesn't just apply to marriages):

    The Shamu Maneuver

    Hope that helps!

    • says

      Wow! I was so insulted 3 days ago that i am still spinning. I was reacting sort of like grief..first I was hurt, then I was furious and third I wanted to talk it out. But the longer I waited, I realized that this world is really crazy right now and lots of people are reacting to their own stresses . All that I care about is t hat what was said was not the truth.
      I can live with just that and now truly feel sorry that anyone else's heart is that hardened and cruel that they could hurl ugly insults to any other human being. It is easy now to let go of all those damaging emotions I was carryng around. Zen or no zen I feel good again.

  9. says

    Anne, it sounds like the insult must have been a powerful one and it's a testament to your self-management that you were able to figure out how to deal with it in a way that didn't weigh you down. I really like your description of the experience as a little like the path through grief — seems very apropos.

    Thanks so much for stopping in, and for taking the time to comment.

  10. says

    Hi! I was hunting for some advise on how to deal with a colleague who always like to make tactless comments, remarks and is racist and trying to be the know-it-all. He is getting on my nerves very much lately and though annoyed, I do not want to raise conflicts with him over his way of speech.

    Chanced upon your site and really appreciate the articles you are sharing! I need to achieve this peace of mind in my workplace.

  11. Phil says


    I didn't realise that this teaching hailed from this story, thank you for publishing and sharing it.

    I often find insults (after using this approach) an opportunity to take right action in terms of acknowledging their foibles displayed and immediately recognising it as a gift in terms of an insight to that person or group of people.

    Often in treating them in a compassionate manner, accepting their point of view and not reacting in an angry or insulting way, resolution is made and respect gained.

    I have recanted this story to many people and it seems to be universally effective and beneficial to all.

    Again, I thank you,


  12. says