I have something I need to admit to you. I make mistakes. Yes, I know that’s hardly a revelation. After all, everyone does. But it’s something I need to start with because when I make mistakes, I want to be called in.
Defining Calling In
You’re probably familiar with the concept of being “called out.” Calling in is a bit different because it creates a different kind of space to move through a problem or a disagreement. I’m not saying that calling someone out is a bad thing. It simply meets a different set of goals and purposes.
I first ran across the idea of calling someone in when I read Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable on the Black Girl Dangerous site. Ngọc Loan Trần describes it as:
I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.
And yes, we have been configured to believe it’s normal to punish each other and ourselves without a way to reconcile hurt. We support this belief by shutting each other out, partly through justified anger and often because some parts of us believe that we can do this without people who fuck up.
When we call someone out, it often has the effect of triggering a defensive reaction and/or shame. That makes it a lot harder for them to take responsibility for their actions and take steps to work towards resolution. Shame, in particular, often leads us to lash out, fall into self-blame, try to avoid the issue, or emotionally (or physically) withdraw. If we don’t have the resilience to move through that reaction and come back to the discussion at hand, things get stuck. That creates a lot more friction and resentment, so the situation can escalate without finding resolution.
Please note- I’m not suggesting that we coddle the people who hurt us. I’m saying that we need to be realistic about the effectiveness of shaming folks in order to try to get them to change. Shame is going to happen and building shame resilience is an essential relationship skill. But the fact that shame happens doesn’t mean that shaming someone is likely to be useful. Shaming creates more distance, which is pretty much the opposite of what you want when you call someone in. (This post by Dani Weber offers some useful tips on how to call someone out without shaming them.)
When we call someone in, we create more opportunities for apologies, amends, reconciliation, and reconnection. Calling in is a kind emotional labor and it’s up to you to decide if it fits a given situation and relationship. If you’re already providing a lot of unpaid emotional labor, you might not have it in you to do more.
Here are some things that can make it easier if you decide to call someone in, along with suggestions for how you can respond when you get called in. Since there’s a component of emotional labor in each of these, think about which of these you have the capacity for. The more you can do, the easier you make it on each other, which makes it easier to move towards resolution. But if you do more than you have the bandwidth for, you’ll set yourself up for resentment.
Get Consent For The Timing
If you need to call someone in, ask them if it’s a good time for it. If you drop something in their lap when they’re on deadline, trying to get their kids to sleep, or rushing to get errands done, they probably won’t have the bandwidth to really focus on what you’re sharing with them. You deserve better than that. Getting their consent for the timing isn’t only about making it work for them. You’re also making it work better for you because they can give you their attention.
If you decide to call someone in by email or another text-based format, be mindful of the fact that the other person will be missing a lot of the emotional content of your message. Tone of voice, body language, facial cues, and prosody (the pace & rhythm of speech) are all part of how we communicate and text doesn’t carry them. If you’re a good writer, if the other person responds well to text, and if you have a solid foundation of trust in your communication with each other, you can definitely work with text. But if not all of those pieces are in place, the risk of miscommunication goes up.
Having said that, if you choose to go with text, give the other person time to respond. Your message might show up when they’re in the middle of something and it’s good to allow them the space to come back to it, to sit with it, and to figure out what they want to say to you. I can’t give you a specific timeframe, but I often figure on at least a week before I follow up or assume that they aren’t going to get back to me.
One alternative is to email them to say that there’s something you’d like to talk about, and then ask to schedule a time to make that happen. Taking that conversation to voice or in person rather than text can feel scary because you don’t have the distance that text offers. So you need to balance your desire for your own comfort and your desire for effective communication.
When you get called in
When you’re angry or upset, there’s a feeling of urgency that often accompanies those emotions. So when someone asks you if you have time to talk, or if they ask to schedule an opportunity for a conversation, don’t delay things any longer than you have to. Show a good faith effort to find the soonest time that you can bring your full attention to the conversation. Honor the fact that calling someone in can be a hard thing to do. And when that time comes around, bring your attention to it.
If you receive a calling in email or text and you need to take some time to respond, go for it. If you need more than a couple of days, you could send a short message saying something like, “I got your message. I want to reply soon, and I’m in the middle of finals. I’ll get back to you as soon as I have the bandwidth to give your message the attention it deserves.” Or you could say, “I got your message. If it works for you, I’d prefer to talk on the phone about it. What are some good times for that?” (For more on that format for inviting someone to do something, check out this post.)
Try To Assume Good Intentions
It can be really difficult to assume good intentions when you’re feeling hurt or angry, especially if you’ve had experience with folks saying, “I didn’t mean it” as a way of dodging responsibility. So here’s what I have to say about good intentions.
First, intentions don’t matter when it comes to assessing the impact of our actions. Harm is harm, whether it’s intentional or not. Second, one way you can demonstrate your good intentions is by acknowledging when you don’t live up to them and by doing what you can to bring your actions back into alignment with them. While I think it’s totally reasonable to tell someone that you didn’t mean to hurt them (assuming that’s true), that doesn’t get you off the hook.
Assuming good intentions can be really difficult, especially if the other person’s actions wound you in a way that you’ve been hurt before, if you have a flinch or a trigger reaction to it, or if this is an issue you’ve previously brought to their attention. The challenge here is to hold onto both accountability and compassion at the same time. If feeling anger is difficult for you, you might tend to make excuses for them or coddle them . On the other hand, if managing anger is hard, you might slide into lashing out, attacking, shaming, and blaming.
The trick here is for both people to be able to assume good intentions from each other. One of the ways we can bring this into our relationships is by talking about issues when they arise, rather than letting them build up. John Gottman makes the observation that in happy relationships, we’re good friends who sometimes annoy each other but in unhappy relationships, we become enemies. If we let anger crystallize into resentment, we slide into being enemies. If you can talk about things before that happens, it’ll be much easier for the two of you to keep out of the enemy zone and assume good intentions going forward.
Part of demonstrating good intentions comes from recognizing that these conversations can be difficult, so the communication might not always be perfect. It means doing your best to manage your reactions so you can be as present as possible. It means trying to use language that doesn’t attack or shame the other person, continuing to engage even when your impulse is to withdraw, and acknowledging the efforts that you’re both making. If you want the other person to assume your good intentions, do your best to demonstrate them.
When you get called in
One really effective way to show your good intentions is to thank them for telling you that something is up. Try one of these:
- Thanks for telling me that there’s a problem/thank you for telling me that you’re not comfortable with this.
- I’m glad you brought this to my attention.
- I appreciate your willingness to talk with me about this.
- Thank you for letting me know that something is bothering you.
Expressing gratitude that they came to talk with you often makes the rest of the conversation go a lot better because it shows your willingness to engage without (as much) freaking out. Thanking the other person makes it easier to remember that being called in is a gift because it means that they trust you to be willing to move forward. When you start with gratitude, it helps you not get as defensive. It also helps them feel less defensive because they see that you’re willing to engage with them. That makes the rest of the conversation a lot more productive.
Another good way to show your good intentions is to be willing to work on building your skill set, especially around emotional intelligence and communication. Some of the areas to work on are your ability to notice and be aware of your feelings, to self-regulate your reactions, and to take responsibility for sharing how you feel with another person without dumping all over them or expecting them to manage your emotions for you. You can also learn more effective communication skills. It’s a life-long project, and the more you work on it, the easier it is for other people to assume your good intentions.
Give Them Some Room To Move Through Their Feelings
When you call someone in, they might have lots of different emotions. Shame, sadness, fear, guilt, worry, and embarrassment might come up. If they try to avoid or minimize their feelings, they’ll get in the way of a productive conversation. If you can give the other person some space to move through their reactions, they’ll be a lot less likely to become barriers. That can be really difficult if you’re holding a lot of anger or resentment about the situation, which is another good reason to deal with things before they get that far.
One big challenge here is to let the feelings happen without trying to fix them or make them go away. That can be especially difficult if you start feeling triggered or upset or scared in response to their emotions. The better you get at recognizing when you’re responding to the current situation versus reacting to something from your past, the easier calling in will be.
Another challenge is that you might feel pulled to take care of the other person, especially if that’s something you often do. If you shift from calling them in and towards caretaking, the conversation moves away from your concerns and becomes all about them. While they definitely have a responsibility to do what they can to avoid that, so do you. If your habit is to become the caretaker, your needs are less likely to get met. Remember- you have to put your oxygen mask on before helping others. When it comes to calling someone in, the more you can keep the focus on your concerns, the more likely it is that you’ll get what you need.
When you get called in
If you’re the one who gets called in, it’s on you to ask for the space to let your feelings happen. It might be as simple as saying, “Wow. That wasn’t what I expected and I’m feeling some surprise.” It might mean that you say, “I’m having a shame reaction now. Can you give me a moment to let it settle?” You might need a minute or two to sit with the feelings and listen to them. You might need to press pause on the conversation because you’ve gotten triggered.
Whatever you need to ask for, you have a responsibility to take care of your feelings and get some support. You’ll almost always find it to be more effective to get that help from someone other than the person who called you in. Not only is it a lot to ask them to take care of you when they brought an issue to your attention, it’s hard for them to hold space for your feelings when they’re feeling upset or angry about the topic at hand. It’s not impossible, especially if the two of you have a history of holding space for each other. But asking them to set their feelings aside (which is part of holding space) can be a lot. So the more you can get that from someone else, the better.
That can be especially challenging if you don’t have a wide support network and your main (or only) support person is the one who’s calling you in. It can be tempting to ask them to slip into that familiar role. While I’ve seen this in relationships of all genders & sexual orientations, it’s especially common for heterosexual men because the Act Like a Man Box tells guys that they’re only supposed to get support from their girlfriends/wives. In my coaching work, I see a lot of couples get stuck in that pattern. She brings up an issue, he goes into a shame spiral, she ends up taking care of him, and the issue never gets resolved because his emotions become the focus.
Brene Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me, has a lot of amazing tips and tools for becoming more shame resilient and I recommend it to a lot of my clients. However, it’s good to note that Brown’s research focused on women’s experiences of shame and it wasn’t until her 2015 book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, that she started to unpack the gendered differences in how people experience and heal from shame. I find that at least 75% of her suggestions work for people of any gender, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are limits how effective they are. I haven’t seen anything that addresses shame for men that I like.
Whatever your gender or relationship status, if you’re called in by your only support person, it’s usually a good idea to get some backup from a therapist, coach, or a trusted friend. It’ll take a lot of the pressure off your relationship. Learning some emotional self-regulation skills and building a support network can go a long way towards becoming emotionally resilient. Don’t wait until something happens to get started. You have to learn first aid before there’s an accident, and you’ll be a lot better off if you buy a plunger before the toilet breaks. The sooner you begin to expand your emotional skill set, the easier these conversations become.
Answer Their Questions
If you call someone in, they might understand the situation as soon as you tell them about it. But they might not get it all, or they might have questions about the impact of their actions. If they don’t have a handle on things, they’ll need to ask you to explain or clarify what you mean.
In some ways, this can be the trickiest part of the process. We each have our blind spots and our learning edges, so there’s always the possibility that what seems obvious and intuitive to you might be new to them. They might not understand it all at first. They might struggle with understanding your perspective. And sometimes, it takes a few tries before they get what you mean.
That doesn’t make it your responsibility to educate them about your life or your experience. This is especially true when the reason you’re calling them in is because they were acting from a place of privilege. Your response might be to tell them to go learn about the core issue, rather than asking you to teach them about it. That’s fine, as long as you can give them some time to go do that and then circle back to continue the conversation. It can be tricky to find the balance between helping them get over the learning curve and taking care of yourself by pointing them to other resources. You need to decide what works best for you, given the situation and the relationship you have with the other person.
When you get called in
If you have questions when you get called in, ask from a place of genuine curiosity, rather than deflecting or derailing or playing devil’s advocate. It’s your responsibility to show a good faith effort to understand the other person’s perspective and to learn whatever you need to in order to make that happen. Inquiring from a real desire to connect with them and get where they’re coming from is totally different from asking them in order to disprove their claims or show that they’re wrong about you. So you need to stop and see whether you’re asking to get information and understand, or whether you’re asking to derail or deflect responsibility.
This is a good time to check yourself and ask if you’re having a defensive reaction. If you are, you’re a lot more likely to ask questions with the intention of deflecting, derailing, or shifting blame. When you find yourself doing that, try this:
- Tell them, “I’m getting defensive about this and I’d like to shift that. Can you give me a moment?”
- Close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Focus on the sensation of the breath moving in and out. Feel your feet on the floor. If you have difficulty with tracking your breath, try following along with this.
- If that doesn’t help, walk around the room or drink some water. That can help you become more calm and grounded.
- If you need more time than that, tell them, “I need to take a little more time to take care of how I’m feeling. Can we take a 15 minute break so I can walk around the block and cool off?” (Note: giving a short and specific time limit demonstrates that you want to circle back, and it lets them know that you won’t be too long. That’s much more effective than simply walking out of the room and leaving them to wonder.)
- When you’re ready, come back to the conversation. Thank them for giving you that space.
- If your question was a genuine inquiry, try asking it again. Can you do it softly? Not in terms of the volume, but in terms of the emotional intensity of the question.
- If your question was a defense reaction, try saying something like, “I want to understand what you’re saying, so I’m going to try to not get defensive when you tell me. Can you back up so I can try again?”
There will be times when you can reasonably expect the other person to teach you about the issue that came up, and there will be times when you need to get that somewhere else. If they choose to help you learn about it, they’re giving you a gift, so treat it accordingly. And if that’s something they can’t do or don’t want to do, don’t let things stop there. Go learn what you need to learn, and then reconnect with the other person.
Protip: be wary of random internet searches when you get called in. There’s a lot of great info online, and there’s a lot of terrible stuff, too. You can ask the person who called you in for some suggestions for articles, websites, or videos to start with. That shows both respect for their experience and acknowledges that you understand the value of seeking guidance elsewhere. Extra credit points: ask them if they’d like to follow up after you’ve had a chance to learn more.
There are a lot of different directions things can take from here. Sometimes, there will need to be an apology and reconciliation. Effective apologies have a lot of ingredients and they take practice, so again, my suggestion is to start working on those skills before you need them. Sometimes, there doesn’t need to be an apology (like if the person couldn’t have reasonably known that something would be an issue), but there can still be a commitment to changing future behavior. Sometimes, you simply need to agree to disagree, though you can work towards doing that from a place of mutual respect. Sometimes, things resolve when you each understand the other person’s perspective, even if there aren’t any other changes made.
Whatever route you go, the important thing is to be able to have that conversation with as much clarity as you can, and with as much of an open-heart connection as possible. There are lots of places to learn those skills. You can read books, take workshops, or work with a coach or a therapist. If you think you already know how to communicate well and don’t need to work on it, guess again. There really is something new you can learn. There are ways in which you can improve your skills, no matter how much you’ve already done. Sooner or later, you’ll be in a new situation or face a new challenge and there will be new things to try. Or you’ll discover a different perspective on a past experience or trigger that will inspire you to find a different approach. Or you’ll come to understand a pattern in your relationships that you didn’t see before and you’ll want to figure it out. When it comes to relationships, there’s always somewhere we can do better.
Calling someone in takes a lot of courage. Courage originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart,” and that is the root of calling in. It’s also the foundation of responding well when you’re the one who’s called in, which is why there’s emotional labor on both sides of the interaction. Being able to do that work and to speak your heart takes a lot of practice, especially when there’s a conflict or when big emotions rise up. It isn’t something that just happens. It’s something you need to learn and then practice, and then learn and practice some more.
A lot of my clients come to me convinced that these moments of conflict are a sign that there’s something wrong in their relationships. I believe than when we learn to handle them well, they become the friction that polishes a gemstone. Conflict doesn’t mean the relationship is bad. It means that there’s an opportunity to heal old wounds, learn new ways to be courageous, and discover how to make things shine. Calling in is one way we can do that.
As a sex and relationship coach, I work with individuals, couples, and poly groups of all genders and sexual orientations, and I’d be happy to help you find your way. I offer a free Get Acquainted call, which gives us an opportunity to talk about your situation and how I can support you. I work with people from all over the world, so get in touch with me and let’s figure out how to get things moving in the right direction.