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?