Subscribe to The Wizard WIRE for inspiration, updates and free resources!

How to Respond to Disturbing Remarks and Behaviors

Note: This is written especially for someone who faces sexual harassment or hears a racist, homophobic or other type of horrific remark.


You’re shocked, flustered, frustrated, and maybe a little frightened because someone uttered an inappropriate, sexist, racist or homophobic remark. Even worse, they might have touched you inappropriately. You know you must respond, yet you’re initially frozen, as you fear you’ll fly into a rage.

Without preparation, shock can cause your brain and tongue to freeze. You might shake your head in disbelief and go silent, or you might stammer or shout incoherently. You might feel the urge to shove or slap the offender, then pull back, especially if you’re at work and are afraid you might get fired.

You assess your quandary. You want to respond, yet must weigh competing priorities and realities. You hate abusive language, and you don’t want to be seen as weak. If this happens in your workplace, you may be worried that you’ll be viewed as a complainer by coworkers or boss.

Most important, you want to speak with confidence, power and control, as one who can stand up for yourself and manage difficult situations without running for help. 

You’d like to be clear in your reply so that others communicate with respect when they are talking to you or in your presence. They should know better, and you want to be prepared to teach them in that moment.

The good news is that there are ways to rapidly process and respond, in the moment, with clarity and confidence. 

Rudeness and wildly reckless comments seem to be on the rise. Some individuals even seem to reject respectful, bias-free language by snidely labeling it Political Correctness (using air quotes to further their point). Bullying behavior has been unleashed without regret or apology, while some excuse their unacceptable behaviors by saying, This is just me, take it or leave it. I tell it like it is. I can say whatever I want, I have freedom of speech!

There are many possible responses you can use in these difficult and uncomfortable situations. The key is that you must mentally prepare ahead of time. Start by learning a few responses you can use when  a situation like this occurs. They are your Positive Power Lines™.

Positive Power Lines™ contain and direct your inner power. They can be delivered at low, medium or high levels of power, depending on what is required in the moment. I’ve listed a few examples below that you can keep in mind to turn what might have been a moment of tongue-tied, shocked silence into a demand for respect as well as a teaching moment.

There’s not one Positive Power Line™ that works for every instance, of course. Choose a few to commit to memory:

Excuse me??? (In an almost sarcastic, surprised tone of voice.)

What makes you think a woman (man, anyone) would want to be talked to like that?

I must take exception to your assumption. 

This has not been my experience with … (group or individual the bully has targeted).

I’m not comfortable with those words or the thoughts behind them.

Please take a step back and rethink what you said. Would you want your wife (husband, son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend) to be spoken to in this manner?

Are you sure that’s something you want me to respond to? Or would you like to rethink it for a bit, then try again?

Would you like an opportunity to rephrase that?

I’d suggest you remember that you’re not at a frat party and behave appropriately.   

I’m going to ask you from now on to show me the same respect that I’ve shown you. And I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt just this once. Don’t make this mistake again.

I’m here to work, to do my job and to show up as a colleague, not as a party animal.   

I’m sure you didn’t mean that the way it sounded. (If they say, I sure did! You can say, Then that’s very disappointing.)


These responses will help you find the right words to say in a tense moment. You can dial up your power as needed and, of course, you should consider what further actions you may need to take in light of the threat, whether it’s from a repeat offender and whether colleagues are having similar problems.

I want you to have the words on the tip of your tongue for every tense moment, especially for those that are likely to silence you if you’re not prepared.

When more of us have Positive Power Lines™ ready, we will become stronger and more self-confident in our responses and will endure fewer instances of this type of disrespect, disempowerment and harassment.


Gloria Thomas, The Communication Wizard, Positive Power Lines™


Sign Up Today

Get updates, news and free resources by email when you subscribe to The Wizard WIRE.