In NVC circles, there are several topics that are often raised when someone behaves in a way that’s painful to another person. Discussions come up about the toxicity of shame, about how feedback that’s harsh and judgmental directly counters NVC principles. People dismiss and actively seek to repress certain types of responses as counterproductive, asserting they stimulate shaming which does not produce change. There’s discussion about the importance of seeing each person’s humanity – looking for the needs beneath the person’s behavior, and gently trying to help them find more productive ways to meet their needs. There’s a repeated implicit message that the nonviolence in nonviolent communication means talking gently, softly and with exquisite care, especially to those who are different than us. Despite a desire to move away from the either-or / good-bad paradigm in NVC circles, these discussions suggest some people still respond from a belief that there is such a thing as good speech and bad speech, nonviolent speech and violent speech, hateful speech and loving speech. People believe that nonviolent, loving speech is good, and that we know exactly what it is. And, in those circles, the concept of calling-in instead of calling-out a person whose words or actions are out of alignment with our values has been enthusiastically embraced as another thing to which good-hearted progressives of all circles should aspire.
Let’s first look at an example of what we mean by calling-in and calling-out. At the start of a workshop, people are asked to share their names and their preferred gender pronouns. A cisgender older woman in the group exclaims, “Well, I don’t even know what you mean by that. I’m a woman. Why are we making things so complicated – it’s too hard to even remember people’s names, much less a pronoun that’s not even a real word.” Someone calling-out this woman might derisively say, “There’s another example of privilege – another do-gooder who says they want inclusion only when it doesn’t inconvenience them or require them to lift more than a finger.” Someone calling-in this woman might say, “I feel such despair and frustration when I hear your comment because I am longing for each member of our community to define themselves and be seen and responded to in a way that is congruent with their identity, and I long for us to be willing to put the time and energy into supporting this experience for everyone. Does hearing this create any shift in your willingness to learn and use people’s gender pronouns?”
For many people, the type of interaction exemplified above as calling-in is highly preferred because it so often has been effective in attending to some of the reasons that motivate us to speak up in those moments. Calling-in has the potential of expressing intensity, of helping the speaker and those impacted be fully seen for the depth of their experiences. Calling-in from a needs-based frame is grounded in fully acknowledging the impact of individual choices and systemic structures, without demonizing the actor, the person whose behavior and choices stimulated so much pain in another. By combining care and critical awareness, there is a greater possibility that the actor would be willing to engage in dialogue, to accept responsibility for the impact of their actions and even perhaps be motivated to attempt to engage with more structural change. Since for many people, calling-in is generally a more effective strategy than calling-out to attend to such important goals, it’s easy to appreciate why so much energy goes towards helping develop the awareness and skills to more effectively call-in someone. However, even as we work towards supporting our capacity to see each other’s humanity, to call-in during those moments of pain, it is imperative that we find ways to also understand and appreciate what might lead someone to call-out rather than in. We need to find ways to offer our full empathic acceptance to the person who calls-out, just as open-heartedly as we do to the person who calls-in. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of subtly creating a coercive environment in which there is pressure on the person who has just experienced immense pain to immediately choose a form of response that requires commitment, awareness, and some degree of healing from trauma in order to be accessible in the best of times, let alone in those circumstances when one is reeling and in shock. It can easily become yet another occasion in which the needs and norms of the dominant culture are prioritized over care for those people who have borne the invisible brunt of such norms.
When both calling-out and calling-in, we’re trying to raise awareness about behavior we find unacceptable because of the detrimental impact to so many. We’re trying to hold people accountable for their words and actions, to create awareness that hopefully leads to behavior change. Calling-out often flows from deep frustration and anger, from weariness and lost hope. It might be the last plea for injustice to be seen, to be attended to. Earthquakes under the ocean cause unseen damage, resulting in a release of energy that crashes on the shore in a destructive tsunami. Calling-out is that tsunami – the end result of numerous blows and shakes in our invisible psyche that eventually must release their energy in a powerful, albeit sometimes destructive, wave. Calling-in often occurs when we have more spaciousness inside, when hope still exists or has been rekindled through support and practice, when we’re not so weary. It’s the gentler ocean wave, noticeable, still capable of tumbling us to and fro when it hits us, but inviting us in over and over again for more engagement, more connection.
It is clear that, just like the tsunami or the ocean waves, neither calling-out nor calling-in are either inherently good or inherently bad. They each serve important purposes. When I’ve called someone out, it has provided an immediate release of unbearable frustration, grief and hopelessness, often surfacing as anger. Calling-out makes it abundantly clear that I’m in pain, that something you did had a huge impact on me. Whether or not you intended this impact, it’s undeniable that the impact was there, even if it’s spoken in a way that you can’t hear. Calling-out centers our attention on the person who is hurt, the person who needs our care, so at least others can give it, if not you. It is not concerned with making things palatable and soothing for you when you are the person committing the action. Coming from raw authenticity, calling-out is an action that attempts to preserve relationships by inviting care and attention on those who experience impact that is often ignored, in hopes that meaningful change can come from some hard truths being named. Calling-out trusts there is enough resiliency and support in the system that my true, authentic expression can be heard, that you can take care of yourself, I can take care of me and our community as a whole will be better for knowing this was named and more able to support me now and you later to learn and shift behavior.
Calling-in also strives to make it clear that your actions had an impact on me, but one additional focus when calling-in is on maintaining the relational connection through which change might come with far less likelihood of shame interfering with your ability to take in the feedback. Calling-in preserves the relationship by prioritizing the person who’s been impacted – for their experience to be known – while also acknowledging and engaging with the person who’s caused the harm. Calling-in requires enough spaciousness inside the one doing the calling-in that they can hold both themselves and the other with care, for the benefit of each person and the community. Because calling-in is often done with an intention to hold with care the humanity of the actor, it is often ultimately more effective in reaching past the defensiveness and shame which highlighting these painful actions can stimulate, and is thereby more likely to be effective in creating the conditions which might inspire the actor to acknowledge their impact and work towards change.
You may be wondering why, in a piece looking at the issue of speaking up with NVC consciousness, I might ever put forth an argument that calling-out be welcomed and tolerated. There are several reasons for this stance. First, as referenced earlier, calling-out is often a response that is informed by repeated trauma. Someone who has stuffed their anger over and over again, who has endured numerous transgressions without relief, who sees others in their communities experiencing this over and over again, may develop calling-out as the only coping response that has ever been effective in halting, even momentarily, the painful action. There might be a significant cost to this strategy. For instance, the actor might stop using certain words, but also might, in their own pain, choose to withdraw from further contact. I might be willing to bear that cost out of sheer relief from the stimulus being removed. In some contexts, the only time pain might be heard and responded to is when it is voiced forcefully. Calling-in may not be a strategy available to or trusted by someone who has learned through multiple experiences that only loud screams get heard. It is then incumbent on those of us, especially those of us who have not been repeatedly submerged in such traumatic situations, to listen for the needs and desires being expressed, rather than to insist that we can only hear those needs if they are expressed in ways that help us feel safe. One of the greatest acts of allyship we can offer is to be willing to self-empathize with the fear and discomfort we experience when we are called-out, and still offer our compassionate, empathic presence to the one expressing so strongly. Or, when seeing someone being criticized for calling-out, to step in and offer empathy and advocacy, to make the needs known, to offer care for both when only care for the actor is implicitly demanded.
Next, in some communities, authenticity and a fullness of expression is what lands as genuine caring. One woman of color told me how she had spent decades of her life smiling politely and shutting up when people made racist comments because she didn’t care enough about the people making those comments to want to engage with them. She only called-out someone when she did not want to “write the person off” and was willing to trust her pain could be received, and the relationship strengthened, by speaking out. Calling-out can thus be an expression of trust in your capacity to hear me, and a desire to bring authentic expression and the possibility of repair and healing to the relationship. I may in fact be baffled that those needs are not seen and responded to, and dismayed when it appears someone is wounded by the calling-out rather than taking up the trust and the invitation for dialogue it represents, however implicitly.
If we hold both calling-in and calling-out as options that might be acted upon in any situation, each with its own costs and benefits, rather than demonizing one or the other, we have more capacity to respond with power and care to everyone in the situations that stimulated pain. What does that look like?
If you are the person impacted in the situation, what is true for you? Do you need to be known for the deep pain you’ve been experiencing over and over again? What do you want known in that moment? Is it your anger and hopelessness? If I’m cut and I scream, no one tells me to be quiet, to be more decorous, to be careful how my scream might discomfit those around me. Similarly, some of the cuts we experience from each other are as deep, flay us as painfully as any knife would. And our reactive scream in response to the verbal cuts invites as much care for freedom of expression, and needs to be met with as much compassion and care as we would give to the person who was cut with the sword. As community members witnessing someone calling-out another person, we can hold the person calling-out with compassion, attending to the needs they are speaking to and the underlying pain they are expressing without any shaming or denigrating of their mode of expression. If we see a person who has continuously experienced painful impact connected to aspects of their identity, the community can become their resource. We can respond with deep holding and care of the impacted person, and we can call-in the actor ourselves, rather than requiring the impacted person to stretch to do so.
Is there any part of you that wants to attend to the relationships of those involved, both the individuals and possibly any community witnesses? Is there a critical lens you would like to see used in this situation? Do you have the internal resources available to hold yourself with care while taking action? You can respond with an empathic naming of what you see happening for the person impacted. Once the impact has been fully acknowledged, you can also connect with the needs the actor was trying to meet by their words and actions, help them gain understanding about why the impact was so very different than their intent, and help them identify more life-serving strategies.
Essentially, we want to be intentional about where we put our attention and what we’re prioritizing. We want to make sure we don’t fall into the old patterns of prioritizing form over content – whether it’s a calling-out or a calling-in, we want to connect with what is being revealed and not focus only on how it was said. If we see both calling-out and calling-in as a window into what is really important for another, we escape the trap of the dichotomous good/bad paradigm, and see every expression as an invitation for connection, understanding, repair and healing. And as conditions are created where all expressions are met with deep understanding of the context informing that expression, with deep empathy and compassion, we also create the possibility of establishing enough trust that we are interested in leveraging the power of calling-in for not only drawing attention to a problem, but inviting partnership towards the solution.