How To Call Out Hurtful Behavior While Still Exercising Compassion

Image by Mauro Grigollo / Stocksy

So someone you like, love, or respect crosses a line. They say something that you don't like. They send an email that you find dismissive. They overlook an important issue. They make a hurtful joke. A lover. A colleague. A client. A friend. What do you do?

You don't want this to be the end of the relationship, and yet you never want to find yourself back at this place. You have to say something. You're scared and anxious about how it'll be received, but it's time. You must speak up, but what do you say?

I know I'm not alone. Most of us get anxious immediately preceding those difficult conversations. We fear becoming emotional or that the other person will become emotional as a result of what is said. It's tricky terrain—one study found that 66 percent of people feel anxious when they know a difficult conversation is coming up, and yet 80 percent of them said they had no real training on how to handle those conversations. Another study looking at workplace conflicts found that 85 percent of employees deal with conflict on some level and nearly a third of those surveyed witnessed conflicts leading to personal attacks.

So just how do you resolve a conflict without launching an attack? How do you assert yourself without becoming aggressive? How do you guard your boundaries without becoming defensive? How do you address a problematic behavior without alienating the very person whose behavior you're trying to address?

It's called sensitive accountability.

During my mediation and conflict resolution training, I was taught an important concept. Picture a table. Most people in conflict see themselves on one side of the table. They see the other person on the opposite side and the conflict between them. But what if, instead, you could make it so that both people were on the same side of the table, with the conflict on the opposite side of the table? And what if you could remove the table? Then, rather than antagonists, the players become partners, working collaboratively to solve a mutually agreed upon issue.

This is the importance of learning to see a person as separate from their behavior. If you can do so successfully, you often gain an ally in addressing the issue. If you attack the person in the process of going after the problem, you lose your partner.

Now, don't get me wrong. This doesn't mean that you stop holding people accountable for their actions. On the contrary, all people (including you and I) must be accountable for what we say and do. But it can be done in a sensitive way, making conflict resolution a collaborative process of teaching and learning rather than judging and condemning. That's how you turn a potential loss into a win-win.

So just how do you get the person who just hurt your feelings to join you on the same side of the table? Here's a nifty little version of sensitive accountability that I like to call the "compassionate CALL-out."

The Compassionate CALL-Out Method

Center yourself.

It's OK to have an emotional reaction. Your emotions give you good information about why you hurt, where you hurt, and what you need. But responding from a place of pure emotion may not get you the result you are going for. So before you dive into addressing the issue, first take a few deep breaths and work your way out of the intensity of that emotional reaction and into a more clear-minded center. This way, you can communicate more clearly and receive anything legitimate that might be raised by the other person.

 Analyze the interaction.

Think through what the comment or behavior means to you. Why were you offended, hurt, or otherwise bothered? How did it make you feel? What impact did it have? Why are you uncomfortable? What pattern does it perpetuate? What harm does it have the potential to do? How can its energy best be neutralized?

Consider how the person could help restore what was broken. For instance, if what was damaged was respect, what could you ask the person to say or do to help fix that moving forward? In other words, how can the person partner with you to address the conflict on the other side of the table? (Here's a helpful guide for dissecting many of these questions.)

Let it out.

Ask to speak with whoever said or did it, in private, if possible. No matter how uncomfortable, these are great teachable moments. Often, these things result more from ignorance than malice. Take the time to explain why you were offended. If you attack, the person will be too busy defending themselves to listen or learn. So, remember to talk about the behavior and not the person—how it affected you, what you fear it has the potential to create, what you would like to see come out of this.

Clear sentences. Easy-to-follow pace. Fill your voice with more bass than volume.

Check in with them and ask for their interpretation of what they are hearing you say. Let them clarify what they may have been thinking. And make sure to ask for what you need.

Let it go.

Holding on to your feelings about the incident will only keep you bitter inside. I am not suggesting that you forget about it or be unaffected. I am suggesting that after you have addressed it, you take away any power that it has over your mood. You also want to allow the other person the space to grow from this and not hold them hostage to your anger. You don't have to forgive and forget, but you may want to find a sense of calm so you can keep it moving.

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Remember that the key is to teach without condemning.

You can hold someone accountable in a way that is sensitive to their humanity and call them out in a way that is compassionate.

Now, there are a very low number of people who will continue the behavior even after they've been compassionately called out. In those instances, you may have to decide whether to stay and how to walk away if necessary. But most people tend to respond well to being made mindful of their impact in a way that honors their heart. We all want to learn and grow and be better tomorrow than we were today, so let's find ways to facilitate that in one another.

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