How to talk to family and friends about hard topics
“Calling out” refers to the act of calling attention to something someone said or did which reinforces systemic oppression in society (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. comments). For example, if your uncle Bob says something that is racist and you immediately respond to him with “that’s racist.” Because of the sometimes acidic nature of this call out culture, social justice activists have begun to use the practice of “calling in” as a replacement. Instead of placing blame on another person for being racist or playing into white supremacist oppressive culture, calling in asks us to go deeper, and try to understand where the other person is coming from and help them understand why what they said might offend you. It’s an attempt to hold a person accountable for their actions in a softer way, while helping them to understand where those actions came from. And it’s hard as hell to do in practice.
One to One
A calling in conversation generally takes place after a certain action or event has triggered the need for the meeting, but the conversation should reach beyond the actions and try to focus on values and lived experience. This practice of calling in happens in a one to one situation and is an effort to build relationships, provide an space for deep self reflection for both parties, identify mutual interest and get to know a person. A face to face meeting should be scheduled ahead of time and set in a comfortable space for both parties, and the meeting should last around 40 minutes. The person initiating the one to one should follow the 30/70 rule- meaning that the speak for only 30% of the time and let the other person speak for 70% of the time. Questions should center around how and why, and try to get at the deeper experiences that have shaped a person’s values.
While the conversation should start out light and include icebreaker conversations, it should easily lead into questions that prompted the need for the calling in. Instead of using judgement, try to just use a questioning heart and listen as the person you are with opens up. As questions like how and why with a genuine desire to hear their answer and help them dig deeper into their own lived experience. Share yours as well because if you’re asking for vulnerability from others, you need to be able to provide it yourself. Ask questions about their identity in regards to race, sex, sexual orientation in an effort to find out what is important to them, and how this might factor into the action that prompted the calling in conversation. Explore ares such as fears, things that make one angry, work life, ambitions, conceptions of power to begin to crack the shell of the oppressive culture without directing blame at the person in front of you.
It’s important to realize that calling in conversations are not supposed to be a place where you change someone’s mind, or convince them of something. Sometimes a best case scenario in a meeting like this is if both parties leave the meeting thinking. It’s important to realize that in inviting someone to a calling in conversation, you need to be prepared to commit to the long haul, because dismantling ideas that someone has been operating on for their whole life is not going to happen overnight. And it’s important that there is mutual interest in the meetings as well, as the person asking for the calling in conversation needs to be careful not to act holier than thou, but must be willing to learn something as well from the other person they are hoping to teach. Because we live in racist, sexist, capitalistic society that values money over people, we are all taught this culture growing up, and none of us know how best to combat it. We must work together, and learn together. Even if you disagree with another person’s conclusion, you must still acknowledge that their feelings are real. White supremacist patriarchal capitalistic culture teaches us perfectionism, rightness, and the need to win an argument- when that is not necessarily the most productive way to go about understanding the world. Moving beyond the facts to reflection is essential.
When you are diving deep into values and lived experiences, it’s kind of inevitable that people might get defensive and defend themselves. And you as the person who initiated the meeting will probably feel this way at some point during the conversation as well. But it’s important to realize that your brain is triggering a fight or flight response, but you don’t have to play into it. To be able to have a productive conversation, you need to focus on deescalating yourself first. Ways to do this include breathing, speaking softly and reminding yourself to stay calm. Focus on the purpose of the conversation instead of the emotions that you are feeling at the moment, and practice active listening. Remind yourself that this is not a competition, and you have the ability to control your demeanor. Most times if you change your demeanor, the person you are speaking to will change their mood as well, because humans mirror each other. When the conversation gets heated it is especially important to remember the 30/70 rule for listening and talking, and to realize that insults another person throws at you might say more about the person themselves than what they think about you. In addition, “I” statements (centering yourself instead of pointing blame or accusations at another) are a wonderful communication tool and a great way to diffuse tense situations.
Even though you don’t have to leave the meeting seeing eye to eye, you should try to leave the meeting with an agreed commitment to meet again. You don’t need to mend all uncomfortable feelings that were brought up during the conversation, but you do need to remind the person that you value your relationship with them even if you are both feeling challenged right now.
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