This post is based on an Instagram Live interview with my friend and fellow therapist, Jesie Steffes, LPC. Our conversation was directed primarily at helping our predominantly white clients and followers to move towards allyship with BIPOC. Join me for Riverbend Therapy Chats each Monday on Instagram Live (@riverbendtherapy) as I discuss mental health topics and answer your questions with my colleagues.
If you’ve been to this blog before or seen my Instagram, you probably know that one thing I talk about is how we all have a river of heartache running through us, and each must learn how to stand in our rivers without getting swept away.
Right now, my river of grief feels especially powerful, as yours might, too. This is a time of tremendous growth and change for many of us. Our hearts are heavy from the ongoing killings of Black people as well as all we’ve been learning about the long history of racism in America.
Some of us have been learning through social media, articles, books, or videos. Others have been having conversations with family, friends, or strangers on social media. And sometimes those conversations are, frankly, pretty difficult, as we learn that the people we love don’t always share our views or values.
On this week’s Riverbend Therapy Chat on Instagram Live, Jesie Steffes, LPC, and I talked about how to have those difficult conversations with compassion, especially when those conversations are with close friends and family. We focused on the ideas of how to call people in, how that differs from calling people out, and when either or both are appropriate. The full video is on my Instagram, but here are some highlights to help you understand how to navigate difficult conversations while maintaining or even strengthening your relationships.
To begin, let’s break down the difference between calling out and calling in. Most of us are likely familiar with what it means to call someone out. We’ve seen it in the news or on social media, or perhaps we’ve even experienced it in our own lives. Calling someone out looks like:
→ Confronting them, often publicly, about a belief they hold or an action they’ve taken.
→ Telling them how and why they’re wrong.
→ Assuming you understand why they acted the way they did.
→ Questioning their character and labeling them.
If you’ve called someone out before, perhaps it’s made you feel brave or proud of yourself for defending your values. Maybe you’ve gotten kudos for it from friends and family, or likes on social media. But if someone has called you out, it’s likely made you feel very differently, like you’re being punished or shamed for your actions. Perhaps your behavior has changed around the person who called you out, but your heart and mind might not have.
Calling someone out often feels volatile or confrontational. Calling someone in, on the other hand, should not feel like conflict. It might be uncomfortable because it still involves discussing someone’s beliefs or behaviors with them, but it should be the discomfort of vulnerability. Calling someone in uses compassion to understand the other person and make yourself known in return, and looks like:
→ Sharing your perspective, often privately, on the other person’s thoughts and actions.
→ Listening with empathy and a genuine desire to understand the emotions fueling the other person’s beliefs.
→ Recognizing that you both feel strongly about an issue, even if your beliefs differ.
As you start navigating challenging conversations with others and learning to call in people, here are some important things to keep in mind:
1. Understand When to Call Out or Call In
In our chat on Instagram, Jesie pointed out that there are times when it’s appropriate to call out another person. In the throes of an aggressive or violent conflict, in the face of imminent danger or harmful behavior, the other person likely will not be open to being called in. So call them out: Let them know clearly and unequivocally that their dangerous or harmful behavior needs to stop. Once the moment of conflict has passed and you feel safe again, you can try calling them in for conversation.
2. Prepare Your Heart and Mind
Calling someone in takes more mental and emotional energy, and sometimes more time, than calling them out. Deciding to call someone in means you’re not there to lecture them; you’re willing to sit and engage with their perspective, while also sharing ours, even if it has to happen over several conversations. So take time to prepare before you start: Reflect on your privilege and how it shapes your view of the world; think about what assumptions you’re making about the other person; find some resources to share that can spark or continue the conversation. When you engage with them, try to listen and share with an open mind and heart.
3. Watch the Language
It’s very easy to conflate someone’s behavior or thinking with who they are. You’re a racist. You’re a liberal. You’re a conservative. But labeling people and reducing their identity to their behavior or beliefs can put them into boxes in your mind and shape your expectations of the conversation. Instead, when you’re calling in people with empathy, focus on naming their behavior: “That post you shared on Facebook was racist…” “Your views are more conservative/liberal than mine…”
4. Work in Stages
The closer you are with someone, the more difficult it may be to call them in because you might be afraid that those challenging conversations will endanger the bond you share. Before you call in your parents or partner or children or best friend, think about how open the lines of communication are. If you or the other person are not ready to have a full conversation, you can approach it in stages. Let them know that what they said or did hurt your feelings and you’d like to talk about it when you’re feeling less raw. Or start by sending them an article or a video, with an invitation to read or watch it and then discuss it together. Respect that they are likely going through a different process or at a different point in their education than you are.
5. Set Boundaries
The hard work of having challenging conversations is in making yourself vulnerable and more known to the other person. It is not in putting yourself into unsafe situations or testing your (or the other person’s) limits. So as you think about calling in other people, especially those close to you, do so with healthy boundaries in mind. If someone is not ready to talk, accept that and let them know that you’re happy to listen when they are. If emotions are high, acknowledge that you see how strongly they feel about the issue and let them know you feel strongly too, which is why you need to wait to talk about it until another time.
What hard conversations do you want to have? What will be your first step to approaching them? If there’s someone you think needs to read this, please share it with them and continue the conversation.