Calling In & Calling Out: Exploring How We Ask One Another To Do Better
Have you ever been called out? It’s not a fun experience. We humans are wired for community and connection. So when something threatens our standing in a community, even when it is the result of our own actions, it threatens our sense of safety and belonging in the world. This is why it’s common to respond to being called out with defensiveness.
A Quick Story
I was called in last year. One fall evening, I went to a blues dance event alone. I had asked a friend/love interest if I would see them there. This person is Black and nonbinary. They said yes.
I arrived early. This was a predominantly white community of dancers in a very white city. While I was getting settled, another love interest, a white man, arrived by surprise. He had known I was going. He was very assertive and excited to see me. By the time my enby love interest had arrived to the event, I’d been swept up into several dances with the white man.
I felt pulled in multiple directions. I shared a dance with each of them, but I didn’t communicate to the man about my intent to spend time with my enby sweetheart. He ended up staying by my side most of the evening and soon I discovered my enby friend had left. I felt terrible and sent them an overly chipper text, expressing surprise that they had left so soon.
Later that week, I received a phone call from them.
“Can I bring something up to you?” They asked.
I cringed. I knew what this was about.
“Of course. Talk to me.” I answered.
“The other night was difficult for me. Maybe I made an assumption, but I expected that we would be able to spend time together at the dance. I was surprised to see you there with someone else.”
I listened intently, feeling guilty for my inaction and grateful for their gentleness with me. They continued.
“I want to help you understand dynamics you may not be aware of. When I enter a white space, as I often do, I am already aware of social power dynamics that other people might not recognize. I was on the fence about going to the event, but I felt safer knowing you would be there and I was excited to see you. When I arrived and you greeted me, then promptly went to dance with your white friend, I felt put in my place. I felt excluded and less important to you as a Black, non-binary person.”
Their words spoke to the heart of the issue. Initially, I felt an impulse to make excuses for myself; I hadn’t planned for the man being there, I had felt unsure of how to handle the situation. “Wait! I’m not racist!” My ego wanted to say. Growing up, I had learned to be right at all costs, to save face even when it damages relationships. I had been working for several years to own what’s my responsibility and to become better at apologizing and moving through conflict.
I had also learned in a recent allyship group that centering my experience in a situation where I’ve done harm can actually do further damage. The best way forward was to take responsibility for my behavior and move toward the connection. It was humbling and scary. What I really wanted in this situation was to heal the harm I had done to my loved one and repair our connection.
So I apologized. I didn’t make excuses for my behavior. I thanked them for helping me to understand, asked for additional insights and committed to showing up with more awareness in the future.
I had recently come to learn that we are all participants in a racist society; that having my behavior questioned and my blind spots identified is not an attack on my character, but an invitation for me to do better. I’d learned that it is actually caring to name someone’s behavior; it shows that we value the connection, since it’s often easier to stay silent.
My friend was gracious and had clearly developed skills over the years in effective communication and conflict resolution. It wasn’t their responsibility to be as kind as they were, but their approach made me feel safe to own my actions and confident that our relationship could withstand this difficulty. We got past the hurdle and are still good friends today.
The winds are changing. Subtle and glaring issues in our culture that have gone unaddressed for far too long are coming to light. In order to change and heal the legacies of inequity that have brought us to this point, we have to get uncomfortable. We have to be accountable to one another in our personal lives, and we need real systems for accountability within our institutions, too.
Let’s explore the mechanisms of calling someone out, calling someone in, practical tools for doing so, and how to respond if (and when) you get called out.
Impact and Accountability
We can think of impact as a weight that our community holds. All of our actions, conscious or not, carry impact to those around us and the community at large. When someone says or does something harmful and we don’t speak up, the weight of impact rests on those who have been affected. Calling someone out (or in) seeks to hand the burden of responsibility back to the individual and create an opportunity for them to take ownership and repair the damage. Even when someone is unwilling to own the results of their actions, the act of calling them out/in can interrupt cycles of behavior, reaffirm group values and standards, and protect those who are vulnerable from further harm.
When To Call Someone Out
A call out may be necessary when you witness words or behaviors that have harmful impact on the immediate environment or individuals in the group. It makes sense to speak up in the moment when you don’t have the ability to effectively confront someone later on or in private.
Speak up when someone’s words or behavior need to be immediately interrupted to prevent further harm.
-You witness a problematic altercation in a grocery store or restaurant.
-A peer or coworker is going on an ignorant or demeaning rant about a marginalized group.
-Someone you know is engaging in risky behaviors which endanger others.
Why Calling Out Can Do More Harm Than Good
Calling out can be ineffective — shame is an emotion which can shut down listening and growth.
It can inflate the intervener’s ego/sense of superiority.
It can create a right/wrong binary where the person being called out is seen as in the wrong or treated as the enemy.
It can cause damage to the individual’s reputation and sense of self.
In rare situations, a confrontation could escalate to the point of danger.
Remember: The goal of holding each other accountable is growth and positive change.
What conditions make growth and change possible? Being publicly shamed for your words/action/inaction is unlikely to motivate a lasting change. If it does, it may be accompanied by resentment toward the person holding you accountable or a damaged sense of identity.
Ask yourself: How can I accomplish the same goals of accountability while doing as little damage as possible?
When To Call Someone In
Calling in means confronting someone about their behavior in private and asking them to take steps to change and do better in the future.
It can be wiser and gentler to call someone in when you have a relationship or established rapport with the person. If there is mutual trust built, or if there is time to digest the situation before approaching them, call them in. Is there potential for deepened understanding, reframing, or a major paradigm shift? In some instances, bringing in a neutral third party or facilitator can be useful as well.
Calling in can often achieve the same results, with less potential for backlash or damage to the individual’s reputation or the relationship. By taking on a collaborative tone and inviting discussion, you can build bridges and increase undertanding across differences.
-A friend or partner makes a joke that is hurtful or lacking awareness.
-Someone in your social circle exhibits a pattern of behavior that may have complex background which needs contextualizing.
-A leader makes an underinformed judgment call that negatively impacts individuals or groups downstream.
Why We Don’t Speak Up
Understanding our reasons for being silent helps us overcome these blocks when situations arise.
- Self doubt: “I don’t know what to say. I’m not sure of my motives.”
If possible, talk with a trusted friend to clarify your intent and plan before approaching the individual.
- Discomfort with confrontation. “I’m worried it will be tense or awkward.” This is common. We humans are wired to avoid discomfort. Identifying problematic behavior can feel scary. It’s almost guaranteed to be uncomfortable.
- Fear of being hypocritical. “I’ve done similar things in the past.” Remember that asking someone to do better does not require you to be perfect. Sometimes, familiar behavior we are working on ourselves can be easiest to spot. Use this as a tool for empathy when approaching someone.
- Fear of overreacting. “Am I making this a bigger deal than it is?” Sleep on it. Journal about it. Get a second opinion from someone you can trust.
- Fear of breaching solidarity with those in power. “What if they target me because I spoke up?” This is common in bullying and intimidation scenarios. Speaking up can sometimes make you vulnerable to retaliation. If you come from a marginalized population, are you the best person to confront the individual, or might there be a trusted ally who can do that labor? Only you can decide what you feel safe and comfortable taking on.
- Desire to be nice. “If I say something, they will feel bad/ashamed/not like me anymore/think I am mean”. We are in a culture that values niceness over kindness. Keeping our interactions in the world comfortable and easy is a top priority for many people. It’s how we’re wired. Unfortunately, that’s how we end up with a society full of polite people who believe and do a lot of problematic things.
“I Feel Attacked!” A Word On Defensiveness
We each have different tolerances for discomfort, informed by our lived experiences and the privileges we’ve been afforded in life. Regardless of the approach, some people are bound to feel attacked when they are being held accountable. Perhaps they are used to having their behavior enabled. Maybe they are accustomed to being in a leadership role where they can control the environment. It’s possible they have had upsetting experiences around being held accountable in the past.
Defenses may look like:
“No one’s ever brought this up to me before. You’re the one with the problem.”
“Why are you so triggered?”
“Some people will find any excuse to be offended.”
“It was just a joke. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“You need to lighten up.”
“I feel attacked!”
“I don’t feel safe right now.”
“I’m really hurt by what you’re telling me.”
“You’re making me feel like a bad person.”
“I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. I have a __________ friend.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I’m a good person.”
Finding The Words To Say
Here is a list of statements you can use when speaking up, sorted by calling out and calling in. (Assembled by Seed The Way.)
Tools for putting this into practice:
State the way the person’s actions are being experienced.
Ask for reflection and reconsideration of their behavior.
Request an immediate change in language/actions.
Affirm values and standards to the group .
State your intent.
Focus on concrete words and actions.
Regardless of the method:
Assume best intentions (but remember that intention is not an excuse for impact).
Be direct — say what really needs to be said.
Avoid making insults or character judgments.
Be specific in your request.
Create a plan for follow up.
When Not To Call Someone In/Out
If you feel out of control of your emotions.
If your primary motive is to take them down.
If your safety is at risk.
If the benefits to the group/community/individual do not outweigh the cost.
If, upon reflection, the situation feels petty.
If you participate in the same behavior and may be projecting your own feelings of guilt.
When It’s Time To Speak Up
Try something like this.
“I want to talk with you about something you said/did. Remember when _____________? I’ve had some time to think about it. It was problematic because (it makes light of the experiences of others/it condones violence and xenophobia/it centers your experience as normal and everyone else’s as “other”). I am coming to you because I value this relationship and I believe you can do better. I don’t want to make assumptions or create distance because of your behavior. Can you help me understand your choice of words/actions?”
Depending on their response, you may respond with:
“Thank you for recognizing this. I know it is hard to talk about. How can I best support you moving forward?”
“I’m not sure you’re understanding the impact of your actions. When you _________, the message I received was _____________. This is about more than good intentions. Here are the shifts I need to see going forward in order to repair the damage and move forward together.”
It’s important to understand that there is no formula for getting people to change their behavior. Ultimately, it is up to them to understand their impact and become willing to change. Still, for healthy community we must make a habit of addressing harm when we see it and setting clear standards and agreements for ourselves and each other.
How To Respond If You Get Called In/Out
Take time to reflect.
Ask clarifying questions.
Commit to doing better — be specific with what and how.
Make a plan for accountability.
Make amends/apologies if needed.
Changing The Culture
Relationships are messy. Being in community is a total trip. Staying with the discomfort and moving through conflict… well, that’s a high-level skill that we get to work on building throughout our lives.
Our social circles, workplaces, and communites are microcosms of the world at large. We participate in shaping culture when we create healthier, more honest, more accountable approaches to sharing space with each other in daily life. It’s not easy. Accountability requires us to show up and be uncomfortable together. It requires vulnerability.
We do it for ourselves. We do it for those who are marginalized. And we do it to strengthen the fabric of empathy that our world needs in order to truly heal.
Thanks for reading. I’m an Indigenous Mexican author, mother and community organizer based in Portland, oregon. Visit my website, connect with me on Instagram, or check out my memoir, Edge Play: Tales From A Quarter Life Crisis.