How to be Accountable

how to be accountable

In this show we talked about how you can be accountable when a friend or other person in your life comes to you to say that they’ve been hurt in some way by your behaviour or choices.

This might include consent violations, unintentionally racist, sexist or otherwise offensive speech or behaviour, triggering them, or otherwise saying or doing something that upset, frightened, or angered them.

Here we focused on situations which can be dealt with one-to-one. In cases where the situation is more extreme (e.g. an assault, or resulting in deep trauma reactions), where there are big power imbalances in play, or where there are very different stories about what happened, it’s better to engage in some kinds of supportive accountability process. We’ll probably talk about this more in a future episode, and there are good resources about this at the back of MJ’s Consent Checklist zine.

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How do people generally respond if somebody approaches them about their hurtful behaviour? According to the cultural script our first response is often denial (‘I didn’t do it’). This is because we generally hear ‘that behaviour hurt me’ as ‘you’re a terrible person’ (thank-you individualistic capitalist culture). It’s really helpful to keep learning that there’s a distinction between behaviour and identity. We are all going to hurt people – it’s part of being human and inevitable in a structurally racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, classist, fatphobic, etc. etc. etc. society where most of us have been treated non-consensually and learnt to treat others in these ways. 

The ways we deny any accusation we might’ve done wrong are the basis of cultural rape myths which so many people believe in (e.g. that most accusations are false, that it is the victim’s fault, that they could’ve prevented it, that the impact isn’t that bad, etc.) Trying to shift from these forms of denial in more minor situations is an important part of challenging them in such major circumstances as sexual assault.

Here are some common responses to someone telling you that you’ve hurt them in some way:

  • Minimise what happened or the impact it had on them e.g. ‘I would never mind if someone did that to me’, ‘It’s no big deal’, ‘You’re over-reacting’
  • Blame them e.g. ‘If you hadn’t… I never would have…’, ‘You should’ve spoke up straight away’, ‘You’re hurting me by bringing this up’
  • Defend e.g. ‘I didn’t mean it’, ‘Nobody else has ever said that about me’
  • Gaslight – making them doubt themselves e.g. ‘That’s not what happened,’ ‘You’re being crazy’
  • Excuse yourself quickly e.g. ‘It wasn’t my intention to hurt you,’ ‘You have to understand what was going on for me’, ‘You hurt me just as bad that time you…’

When we respond in these ways we hurt the person further. Often it’s taken a huge amount of courage for them to bring this up and such responses shut them down and damage trust between us, as well as feeling like a secondary hurt on top of the primary one.

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Often when we first hear something like this about ourselves we’re likely to feel defensive and reactive. If that’s the case it’s best to ask for some time out to process what we’ve been told before having more of a conversation about it, especially if our feelings are at the ‘hot’ end of the emotional thermometer. During time away we might do self-care to get ourselves to a place we can hear what was sad without feeling overwhelmed, we might get support from others who can help us make sense of it (not those who will reinforce denial responses), we might think about times we’ve felt the kinds of feelings the person is talking about in order to empathise with them, maybe even writing about what it might’ve been like from their perspective.

What people generally want after they’ve been treated poorly or hurt by someone is to hear the person who treated them that way:

  • Acknowledge that they are telling the truth
  • Take responsibility for it
  • Understand the impact of it
  • Reassure them that it won’t happen again

When we come back into contact it’s great if we can offer those things sincerely. As mentioned before, if they feel like things you can’t genuinely offer then potentially more of a process may be helpful. 

The more power we can give to the person who has suffered the hurt over how the process goes, the better. It’s great to demonstrate that we’ve heard them, and check in with them about what they need throughout, and afterwards.

Generally when these things happen we polarising into either blame (it’s your fault, I’m not a bad person) or shame (it’s my fault and I’m a terrible person). The aim here is to avoid either approach (shame just makes it all about you which isn’t helpful!) You may well feel blame and/or shame and it’s important to acknowledge that and get support around it, but hopefully you can find your way to kindness for both the other person and yourself in this situation. Then you can hear the other person and what they need. Often taking accountability leads to a sense of relief, whereas blame and/or shame keep the situation live and painful.

© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020