What is ‘Centered Accountability’ and how do I apply it?

What is ‘Centered Accountability’ and how do I apply it?
By Karen Hewitt (ze/hir/she/her)
Associate Director, Leadership Columbus

I have always experienced December as a reflective time of year. 

In my facilitation work, I often talk about whether folks are willing or unwilling to do ‘the work’. So this blog is for the willing: those that are committed to their growth and to nurturing their relationships with everyone in their lives.

It is hard not to notice the patterns of disconnection we have as humans, especially in our current cultural climate. I will focus here on something that can be used for repair when harm occurs. This framework is a practice of hearing what someone else is saying to you and acknowledging that it is possible that you may have done some harm or caused an unfavorable impact with your behaviors and actions. 

My philosophy on growth has evolved. To be in senior leadership, there has to be some level of accountability and curiosity. As a servant leader, my primary value is integrity. To be in my integrity, it is important that I know my values and non-negotiables and be able to communicate them. 

I am committed to centering the dignity of every human life in my work. What this ultimately means is that if I am called in or even called out, it is my responsibility to pause, listen, lean in, and see if there is something that I have done to cause impact or harm to someone. This requires a level of grounded presence where I can place my ego aside and not be reactive in a defensive way, but actually, get curious and do all I can to acknowledge the harm and begin any repair that may be available. This is much easier said than done. 

What I am outlining is integral in the theory and practice of Transformative Justice, which asks us to disrupt and interrupt harm, to acknowledge the conditions that allowed harm to occur, and then move towards repair. In relationships, at the personal and professional levels, these steps are often missed. As we approach right relationship with all the people we interact with, there has to be some level of mutual respect, accountability, care, and reciprocity. It is so important that we interrogate our own practices and behaviors in relationships and manage and navigate others we may supervise or collaborate with. 

And here is the truth about this process: no one wants to hear that they have hurt someone else. It can hurt our feelings when confronted with this information. 

Often we center ourselves: our discomfort, our proving that we are indeed a good person, our commitment to being right, our superiority, our track record, and our shame. It’s a very human thing to do. I suggest that we slow down a bit, remove perfectionist pressure, and show ourselves some grace. 

We then move to center the individual who was brave enough to speak up and come to us and address something that was impacting our relationship. It takes a lot to speak up and advocate for yourself. When I have spoken up, I have wanted to preserve the relationship in some way. Let’s discuss a framework to help you at the moment when a call-in or call-out happens. 

Centered Accountability- what is it?

“Centered accountability is engaging in ownership of an issue/experience without expectation of an emotional transaction; i.e., apologizing without the expectation that the offended will respond favorably, or at all.

There is a neutrality to this approach as we are ultimately not expecting the other party to engage in emotional labor to make us feel better.”
-Erin Upchurch

Being in community means there will be times when I am engaging in centered accountability as both the offended and the accountable. 

Say I accidentally bump into someone. Centered accountability would be apologizing (with or without the prompt of the person I bumped into), asking them if they needed anything, and holding space until they had what they needed to move forward. 

The emotional transaction in this definition is if I kept apologizing, even after the person said it is fine and they don’t need anything. At that point, I am simply pursuing absolution from this person. It is no longer about whether they are okay or not; it moves toward centering my guilt and wanting the other person to absolve me of that guilt in real-time. 

Another common example is if someone is saying something inappropriate about a person or a specific group of people (i.e. a microaggression, stereotype, discriminatory comment, etc.). Often the person or member of the group being discussed has to call in or call out this person for the comment. People are often defensive that this was not what they meant or will apologize profusely and advocate for themselves as good people. Centered accountability asks us to put the person originally impacted or hamed at the center. Make this about them. If they are willing to say something, there is a possibility for repair.  

Although there are many situational examples of impact and harm, calling in and calling out, and accountability, I am providing some shared language here for in-the-moment reactions that will prove less defensive and more open to discussion and centered accountability. These statements are not exhaustive, and I am always happy to hear additional ways people hold themselves accountable. Remember: it is okay to get creative and make it your own as long as we center the person or group impacted or harmed.

Shared language for responding to someone saying you caused hurt or harm

  • “Thank you for sharing that with me. I am listening. Can you tell me more about how that impacted you?”
  • “What I am hearing you say is that this impacted you in this way…”
  • “I need some time to digest this information. I am sorry you’re experiencing this, and for any pain, I may have caused. Can we set up a time to discuss this further?”
  • “I am sorry this has caused you hurt/pain. I am committed to repair. Is there anything you can think of that I can do that will help in healing?”

A lot of times, people just want to be witnessed, and there is nothing to say or do; just listen and hold space. Don’t rush to defend, fix or problem-solve. You are not responsible for their feelings, but you can be accountable for your actions and how you show up or have shown up. 

We are socialized to defend, fix, to center ourselves. Listening and acknowledging that you may be wrong is no small feat. It requires a lot of practice and introspection. It requires your willingness to prioritize ‘right relationship’ over your comfort. 

I have witnessed so many beautiful examples of centered accountability. Nothing gives me more hope than watching two people work through impact and harm to repair and nurture their personal or professional relationships. Sometimes, repair is not available. That gets to be okay as well. There is a lot of nuance and complexity to accountability and repair. As we move to heal the disconnect, centered accountability is a helpful framework that centers the harmed and creates space for us to reconnect.