When I facilitate brave learning spaces where people are learning to do Allyship and Leadership, we always start with Community Agreements. It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-two hour session or a multi-day workshop. On the rare occasions I’ve skipped them for time or just forgot, we always had to backtrack and set them when differences in understanding happened. Let’s be real, if you’re a human who interacts with other humans, miscommunication and misunderstandings are going to happen. We don’t all start with the same background knowledge, experiences, and education on a topic. Community agreements can help you and your team get on the same page.
Call in vs Call Out
Call in vs Call Out is one of my favorites. I usually start by asking, “How do you feel when you’ve been called out?”
Responses ALWAYS include among others: Defensive. Embarrassed. Ashamed.
I nod in empathetic agreement. Yeah. We’ve all been there. It doesn’t feel great.
When we feel defensive, we put up walls. A majority of the population’s response to making a mistake and/or being called out (not always realizing or believing they made a mistake) is to become defensive. There is actually a psychological / physiological response that happens where our brain NOPES out and can’t rationally process what comes next. Our amygdala floods our brain with cortisol washing out our processing/reasoning/logic frontal lobe. In other words, our primitive brain takes over and we go into fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
When I introduce this Community Agreement that I first learned in LGBTQ spaces facilitated by mentors who are QTBIPOC (Queer and Trans Black Indigenous People of Color), I say something to the effect of:
“A call out is really just an invitation to learn, but it often doesn’t feel like an invitation. In this space, if someone makes a mistake using the language or knowledge they have, there is NO SHAME. We don’t know what we don’t know. So, I’m going to ask you to try to frame a correction to any mistake as a ‘call IN’. It’s an invitation IN to the learning. IN to awareness. IN to a new perspective. NO SHAME.“
I have found this one Community Agreement to be transformative in the way people can both express a correction or concern, and how people receive it. It lowers the heat enough for people to be able to hear each other, but still be uncomfortable enough to grow, which leads us to my next favorite Community Agreement:
Lean Into Discomfort
In the discomfort is where the growth happens. We cannot grow if we’re too comfortable. Bonus: when we grow, we help others grow with us.
The fact that “Call outs” often have the intention to shame may have something to do with way they are often received. AND I do believe that true Allyship and Leadership means learning to HEAR what was said regardless of the tone or intention. Just because people try to shame us doesn’t mean we have to feel shame. Just because someone yells at us doesn’t mean they didn’t have something important to say or that we should dismiss it. We need to manage our own triggers, so we can be able to hear what they’re saying despite, or maybe in spite of, the delivery.
Shame doesn’t lead to growth and risk-taking in learning spaces and it isn’t healthy in relationships, though. This is important to me because in my experience, change is built a whole lot on relationships and education. We need to be able to hear each other, which is why these Community Agreement are essential in learning spaces. They are also often helpful in spaces where we’re in relationship with others, including work spaces.
However, perhaps more important than how we engage people in the learning and knowing, is how WE respond to being called in or called out. Can WE respond out of love for others and ourselves? A call in (or a call out) is accountability for harm we’ve done, most likely inadvertently.
Accountability can feel like an attack when you’re not ready to acknowledge how your words or behavior harm others.
Whew! Read that again. Accountability can feel like an attack when you’re not ready to acknowledge how your words or behavior harm others.
That means to do allyship we’ve gotta get really courageous with ourselves, and acknowledge when we’ve caused harm.
In my years of work as an advocate, there have been many times when I “called in” people – family, friends, strangers, educators, Christians – with an invitation into learning how their language or behavior was harmful to people with marginalized identities. Despite the fact that many of these people claimed to be allies and said that they respected my work, it became clear to me that they only respect and support it when I’m not doing it with them. They want to be allies, but only if they don’t have to do the work of allyship. And let’s be honest, acknowledging how our behaviors harm others when we don’t intend harm can be REALLY hard work.
Intent vs. Impact
Now, let’s look at intent vs. impact and how my favorite community agreements relate to that. Intent vs. impact says that the impact you have on someone with your words or behavior outweighs your intent or intentions. You can have the BEST intentions, and still have a harmful impact. Your good intentions don’t excuse you from the harm. AND, when you try to explain your good intentions, it can make the damage worse.
I love an analogy, so here’s one I often use:
My friend and I go dancing. We have different styles and experiences, but my intent is to have fun and learn something new. Unfortunately, I’m as physically clumsy as I am sometimes clumsy with my words, so I step on my friend’s toe. I break her toe. Yikes! My intention was not to cause her harm, but I did so anyway, accidentally.
I’m living my best life, dancing, laughing, learning, but my friend is all of a sudden in pain. Then she tells me, “When you stepped on my foot, you broke my toe.”
Now that we understand our impact can be harmful despite intentions, let’s look at the next part of doing Allyship and Leadership using this analogy.
Managing Triggers (a part of Self-Care)
Remember when I talked about the physiological response that happens when we’re defensive? It can also happen in other situations when the primitive parts of our brains perceive threat. Regardless of the cause, we need to learn how to manage our triggers. It’s the only way we can learn to consciously, conscientiously choose our next actions. This skill requires cultivating an awareness of your own triggers. It also requires lots of practice, so don’t sweat it too much if you’re learning by making mistakes.
You can learn more about the physiological response to triggers by Googling “amygdala hijack”. Or here’s a helpful article I like. I often work with my coaching clients on managing triggers as well.
Something that helps me manage my triggers is understanding that regardless of whether we’re being called in or called out, there’s an opportunity in front of us to take accountability, to learn, to grow, and to show empathy.
If having a harmful-impact-despite-your-intentions is a trigger for you, you may experience one of these outcomes if you haven’t learned to manage your triggers:
Does it help my friend’s broken toe or pain if I deny that her toe is broken, or that it was my fault? “What?! I don’t know what you’re talking about. That didn’t happen. You’re not hurt.”
Does it help my friend’s broken toe or pain if I tell her my intentions? “I was just trying to have fun and learn something, I didn’t mean to break your toe.”
Does it help my friend’s broken toe or pain if I have a triggered shame response? My past trauma about doing something wrong comes out, and I cry, “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry! I feel so bad! I feel horrible!”
No. In fact, all of those responses show that I’m more concerned with MY feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment than I am about my friend and her broken toe.
So what response do we need?
Sometimes an apology is appropriate and sometimes not. A sincere thank you, can sometimes be more powerful than an apology.
What comes next will depend a lot on the relationship you have with the person and the injury you caused. Because I care about my friend’s well-being, I might respond, “Oh, thank you for making me aware! What can I do? How can I help?”
I would probably also say, “I’m sorry,” in this instance too, but often, an apology can put the burden of forgiveness on someone who’s just been injured, and in our Kansas polite society, people are expected, maybe even programmed to say, “It’s OK,” in response to an apology, even when it’s not OK. It’s an unwritten social contract we have here. However, a “thank you” acknowledges you’re aware of the harm done and shows a willingness to be held accountable and learn.
In response to my questions, “What can I do? How can I help?” my friend may tell me, “I need you to get away from me and give me my space,” and that is fine. That is an empowered response, and that’s what I do.
She may tell me, “I need you to take me to the doctor,” or “I need you to be more careful with where you’re putting your feet,” or “I need you to take lessons from a professional before we go dancing again – learn this lesson from a professional or at least YouTube – instead of making me teach it to you,” and those are also all fine, empowered responses, and that’s what I do. No arguing, no justifying my good intentions, just empathy – just allyship.
Now that you have these little nuggets about Community Agreements along with just a couple of ways to do allyship, I promise, you’re going to have many opportunities to practice them. I also promise that doing allyship isn’t always comfortable, but it’s always worth it. One of my favorite authors, shame researcher Brené Brown says,
“You can choose courage or you can choose comfort, but you cannot have both.”
What are you going to choose?