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Holding Someone Accountable Without Shaming Them: A Guide for Effective Conversations

Troy L. Love, LCSW
6 min readJun 28, 2024

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As a therapist who works with clients to develop shame resilience, it sometimes is a challenge not to shame the client when they haven’t followed through on a commitment they made or an assignment they were asked to do. I ask myself, “How do I hold someone accountable without making them feel like crap?”

We know from the research that shame can temporarily alter a person’s behavior but does not have a lasting impact on sustaining positive change. Accountability fosters diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It ensures that harmful words and actions are addressed and corrected. However, when we use shame as our primary tool to enforce accountability, it often leads to defensiveness, anger, and retreat rather than meaningful change.

At the same time, not holding people accountable isn’t very effective in maintaining positive change either. Here’s how you can hold someone accountable without resorting to shame and how to receive constructive feedback if you’re the one being called out.

Understanding Unconscious Harm

Many people unintentionally cause harm because they are not fully aware of the impact of their words or actions. It’s important to recognize that most people operate on autopilot, and what seems harmless to them may be hurtful to others. The first step in holding someone accountable is to approach the situation with empathy. Mistakes are a part of being human, and both parties should navigate these conversations mindfully.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's feelings, thoughts, and experiences. It involves putting oneself in someone else’s shoes and imagining what they are going through, which helps connect with others emotionally. Empathy encompasses cognitive empathy, the intellectual understanding of another’s emotional state, and emotional empathy, the ability to feel what another person is feeling.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

In essence, empathy allows individuals to:

1. Recognize Emotions in Others: Identifying and understanding the emotions that others are experiencing.
2. Share Feelings: Experiencing a shared emotion or concern for another person’s well-being.
3. Offer Support: Providing comfort, support, and assistance based on understanding another person’s emotional state.

Empathy fosters effective communication, builds strong relationships, and promotes compassion and understanding in personal and professional interactions. Empathy can be learned. Effective leaders have developed a solid ability to convey empathy.

If You’re Being Called Out: Shift Your Mindset

When you’re called out for something you’ve said or done, it’s easy to feel defensive or like a victim. However, it’s crucial to remember that the person holding you accountable is doing so to foster a more inclusive and compassionate environment.

Here’s how to process and respond to being called in:

1. Acknowledge the Harm: Recognize that harm was unintentionally caused. Reflect on the impact of your actions.
2. Ask Key Questions: Consider the harm caused, its meaning, and its impact. What are the needs of the person who was harmed?
3. Take Responsibility: Accept that you have played a role in the harm caused, even if you did not mean to, and commit to changing your behavior to prevent future damage.
4. Seek Support: Discuss the situation with trusted friends or colleagues to gain perspective and support.

Remember, it’s not about shaming yourself for your behavior but learning and growing from the experience.

If You’re Holding Someone Accountable: Focus on Inspiring Change

Calling someone in respectfully and effectively is challenging but necessary. The goal is to inspire behavior change, not to shame the person. Here are some strategies:

  1. Separate the Person from the Behavior: The issue lies with the specific behavior or words, not the person’s character. Discuss how the behavior affects the situation. When I worked as a Human Resources Leadership Coach, directors often told me about particular employees who had an “attitude problem.” I would ask them to identify the behaviors that demonstrated the “attitude problem” so that we could address the behaviors and set expectations. The directors had difficulty coming up with anything concrete. I had to help them identify the behaviors so that we could set realistic expectations and measure progress. Telling someone to change their attitude is shaming, doesn’t work, and is frequently unrealistic.
  2. Use Empathy: Understand that people may respond negatively because one of their attachment wounds has been hit. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but keeping this in mind helps us respond thoughtfully rather than angrily.
    3. Respond, Don’t React: Reacting with irritation can escalate the situation while responding thoughtfully can lead to constructive dialogue.

Helpful Phrases for Accountability Conversations

Using supportive language can open up a productive conversation. Here are some phrases to consider:

  • “Tell me more about the way you’re thinking.”
  • “Help me to understand your perspective.”
  • “What caused you to feel that way?”
  • “What do you mean by that?”
  • “That’s not a part of our culture.”
  • “That’s not what we agreed upon.”
  • “That’s not okay with me, and I respect you enough to let you know.”
  • “When you did ______, it impacted me by ______.”
  • “I need clarity about ….., can you help me understand?”

Let me illustrate.

I have had many clients over the years who have created betrayal wounds in their relationships due to secret behaviors their partner did not know about. When the behaviors came to light, the partner was hurt, furious, confused, saddened, and shocked. As the couple figured out how to move forward, certain agreements were made to build more safety.

One example was the man who agreed not to take his phone into the bathroom. There were times when he forgot and took his phone into the bathroom. Here are two separate ways this scenario could play out.

Scenario One

The partner becomes furious. She accuses her husband of not having any integrity. She berates her husband for the next five hours. There is no dialogue — only shame.

Scenario Two

The partner asks, “Help me understand what led you to take your phone into the restroom when you had agreed not to.”

The man replies, “I honestly forgot I had it in my pocket. It wasn’t until I was washing my hands and got a text that I realized I had my phone. Immediately I knew I had screwed up. I promised you I wouldn’t take my phone into the restroom, and I violated that commitment. That is not okay, and I am going to do better.”

The partner says, “You are right. That isn’t what we agreed upon. I feel so uncertain and unsure when you don’t keep your commitments. It scares me. I am unsure that I can trust you, which makes me want to pull away.”

“That sounds so lonely, honey. I don’t want you to feel that way. I am going to come up with a way to remind myself so that this doesn’t happen in the future.”

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Do you see the difference between the two scenarios? Of course, the partner is hurt — a commitment was violated. In the first scenario, however, a resolution to the issue will likely not be made. The hurt and emotional upset creates a situation of shame and disconnection. The likelihood of lasting accountability is poor.

In the second scenario, we see empathy, ownership, and accountability. The partners can discuss the issue at hand without resorting to name-calling or escaping. The husband can hear his wife’s hurt and strategize how he can improve rather than repeatedly saying, “I’m sorry” two hundred times.

Final Thoughts

Having intentional conversations about hurtful words or behaviors is necessary for creating an inclusive environment. By focusing on empathy, understanding, and constructive feedback, we can hold each other accountable in a way that promotes learning and growth. The more we eliminate shame and foster open dialogue, the closer we achieve true equity, inclusion, and compassion.

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Troy L. Love, LCSW

Amazon-Best Selling Author of Finding Peace: Healing from Loss, Neglect, Rejection, Abandonment, Betrayal, and Abuse. Learn more at findingpeaceconsulting.com.