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Essay

How to Handle (And Learn From) Being Called Out

by Grace Bonney

When I started Design*Sponge, I had no idea just how many times I would royally stick my foot in my mouth. From poor internet behavior (I left my share of anonymous rude comments, like a proper asshole) and self-righteous stubbornness, to downright ignorance (I will never forgive myself for publishing a post inspired by Ken Burns’ Civil War Documentary), I feel like I’ve made every mistake one can make online — and then some.

And to be honest, it took me a very long time to handle being called out for those offenses. I would say it took me a solid six years to understand how — and why — it was so important for me to start truly opening myself up to what a gift (most) critical feedback is. I could write thousands of words about what it feels like to find message boards devoted to hating you online or reading posts from people who say they’d punch you in the face if they ever met you. It sucks. But honestly, as much as that matters from a human empathy point of view, at the end of the day, you can choose to learn from it and evolve (and also set boundaries), or you can stay stuck in place. And after six years, I wanted to stop being stuck in that place. I wanted to learn how to learn from it and do better. Here are four moments that taught me how to turn call-outs (both public and private) into fuel for change.

  1. The first big moment of call-out I ever got was in public and private. I’d gotten into a truly immature back and forth with another blogger in our community and, well, it was most definitely not me at my best. I was catty and childish and obsessed with feeling like I was being copied. And good grief, what a mess I got myself (and some of my friends) into. I finally walked away when friends online (and off) told me that it had all gone a little too far. They were right — and I was embarrassed. In hindsight, I’m so thankful this happened early. I was acting like the immature 23-year-old I was, and it was time to grow up. From this moment I learned that a) copying, real or perceived, usually isn’t worth the drama b) there’s plenty of room online for people to co-exist who don’t necessarily get along c) don’t write anything online (or in an email) that you wouldn’t feel comfortable being made public and d) time spent wrapped up in online drama is time spent away from work that’s actually important, so don’t waste your time.
  2. My second big moment of call-out happened in the New York Times. They wrote a big piece about design bloggers and the caption under my picture read, “Ms. Bonney does not disclose that she is paid by her PR clients to write about their work.” The second that story hit stands, my inbox and comment sections were flooded with furious readers who felt betrayed. That caption wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter — the damage was done. I wrote an apology message, clarified what I was and wasn’t paid for, and learned a valuable lesson in ALWAYS being 100% transparent about payment and sponsorship (although I did not have any at that time). It was painful and frustrating, but being called out on a national level taught me that few things are as valuable as trust and honesty with your community.
  3. A few months into my first radio show, I got the most important call-out moment of my life so far. Only just starting to notice the lack of inclusivity online, I decided to do a radio show on the topic. I had Tina Shoulders on as a guest and we met a week before recording to talk about the issue. It was there that Tina kindly, and with more patience than I deserved, reminded me that I had a role in that problem, too. I shamefully remember some of the excuses I tried to give and then thankfully, it all sunk in that my behavior was a huge part of the problem. And if I wanted to talk about working on a problem in our community, I had to work on my role in that problem, too. That moment, which happened in private, forever changed the way I looked at my work and personal life. I had a lot of mess to own and I’ve been working hard ever since to recognize and appreciate people’s feedback on this particular issue for exactly what it is — a  gift and an opportunity to do better.
  4. Max Tielman taught me a lot during his time at Design*Sponge. He showed me all the tricks and tools of Photoshop, but more importantly, he showed me the power of a true and sincere apology. I’ve mentioned this here before, but during a day when we were getting a lot of negative comments, I was complaining audibly about how much they were upsetting me and how little I wanted to back down. Max looked at me and simply said, “It doesn’t cost anything to say you’re sorry.” He went on to explain that it goes a long way toward open dialogue if I would acknowledge people’s feelings and let them know they’re heard. And from that day on, that’s been my main goal in the comment sections. He helped me see how much I was holding on to the idea of “being right” or what was “factually accurate,” when at the end of the day, none of that really mattered. In most cases, like all of us, people just want to be heard, have their feelings respected and acknowledged, and then once that happens, there is space for open, vulnerable dialogue. This was a tough lesson for me to learn, but I am so grateful I did. It allowed me to step back, give people space to talk, and then it truly led to conversations that I never would have had without that moment of listening and respect up front.

So what are the steps I take to handle, process, and appreciate call-outs (public and private) — and how can you do the same? Here’s what has worked for me in my experience of blogging and working on social media for 15 years:

  1. Take a deep breath. Determine if it’s dangerous or not. Step one is the most important. Is the comment or call-out you’re receiving an actual threat to you and your loved ones’ safety? If so, call in a professional and take it seriously. But if you can take a deep breath and see that it’s criticism or feedback and not an actual threat, it’s worth moving on to step 2.
  2. It’s not personal (even if it sounds like it). It’s a cliche for a reason, but hurt people hurt people. If someone is truly coming for you and attacking you personally or throwing barbs that sting, try to remember that in most cases, they’re doing that because it’s been done to them before. I would say in 90% of the cases where someone’s really attacked me online, if I can get us to a place of conversation that’s less heated, it usually ends up that the issue is more about something else they’ve experienced that is being triggered by something I’ve done/said/written. And they just want to be heard. Over time, it becomes easier to see anger for what it often is — fear or sadness. Breaking through all that and not getting lost in my personal feelings has allowed me to be part of some truly amazing conversations with people that could have gone down in flames if we hadn’t both taken the time to put our swords down and hear each other.
  3. Get to the point: What is the crux of what someone is telling you? It may be wrapped in layers of anger (or not, which is great!), but unwrap that feedback and get to the core of what they’re telling you. If you feel confused by the feedback or critique, talk to a friend or colleague. They may be able to better help you see what someone is pointing out and help you to learn where you can improve from that piece of feedback. In my experience, most sincere criticism is rooted in a bit of truth that is worth holding on to, processing, and growing from.
  4. Acknowledge someone’s feelings: It’s simple, but if someone says they’re hurt by something you did or said, it doesn’t cost anything to say you hear them and that you’re sorry they came away from your site/post/project feeling that way. You don’t have to agree with their take, but it is important to acknowledge another human being who is trying to connect and share their feelings. A simple, “I hear you. I’m sorry you came away from this post feeling excluded,” is a good start.
  5. Ask for more information: One of the most powerful things that has helped me deal with being called out is remembering that it’s an opportunity to better understand how someone else from a different background may be experiencing what I’m putting out into the world. That’s not always an easy thing to stomach if you feel like you’re just sharing your life or experiences with their world with no bad intentions, but people with different life experiences will be triggered by things you share online. It’s just a given. We all have different lives and traumas and points of view. Does it mean you’re a bad person? No! It just means that when you ask someone to explain why they’re having the reaction they are, and invite them to share their point of view, you get to learn about what life feels like in someone else’s shoes. It creates empathy, compassion, and a real connection. That is a truly valuable thing to experience.
  6. Keep it private. When possible, I’ve found it’s best to respond to call-outs (whether public or private) in private. That means DMing someone, emailing them — whatever will give you the chance to talk in a safer space where things can’t escalate because other people jump on to defend or attack either side. Not everyone will be open to this, but I can speak from my experiences that this is almost ALWAYS a better way to approach the situation. People usually act differently one-on-one than they do in an open forum, and I’ve found they’re more likely to feel safe to open up and let you know what’s underneath a call-out. That emotional connection is important to really understanding and connecting with someone, so if it’s possible, follow up on the call-out in private. If they ask you not to do that privately, you can continue to talk in public, but I’ve found that sometimes leads to escalation from other readers, which can be counter-productive to actual connection.
  7. Remember: in most cases, people are telling you this because they think you’ll listen and care. People don’t usually waste their time yelling into a void. If they think no one is listening, they won’t bother leaving a comment. But if people feel you are listening and you do care, they’ll decide it’s worth showing up to share a critique, point of view, or feedback. It took me a while to see this as the gift that it is, but oh boy is it a gift. If you work hard to create a safe space for people to express themselves, they’re going to, well, express themselves! That’s part of the process. Remember this. Even on tough days, it’s important to remember that most people tell you they’re upset because they care about you, what you do, and your impact on your community. And that’s a role and responsibility to be appreciated and respected.
  8. When in doubt, talk to a friend. Look, handling call-outs, especially publicly, can be stressful. But the final step is to remember not to air that stress publicly if it’s not necessary. Tell a friend, a loved one, or a colleague who will understand. You can connect, commiserate, or just support each other in letting that steam out in a safe space where it won’t escalate the conversation someone is trying to have with you or your brand online.

Last but not least: Are you thinking about calling someone out? Consider a private message first. When things go public, it’s hard to control how they’ll evolve from there.  People are also more likely to feel defensive when you call them out publicly- and that’s rarely an emotional place where vulnerability and change can happen. Outside influence can cause things to escalate, legal matters can take effect, and all sorts of things can happen that lead to anything but a safe space to discuss a sensitive issue. If I’ve learned one thing from 15 years of working online, it’s that calling people out publicly rarely leads to the type of connection and change we’re hoping for. If you can, talk to someone in private (and give them fair time to respond) first before taking something into a public forum. It may not always feel better, but more often than not, it gives the other party time to react, take a breath, and respond with thoughtfulness. xo, Grace

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Comments

  • I’ve been called out. It has most been by bullies but I kept going. I’ve changed my tone but it is so hard not to match the tone that they are sending out. I’ve enjoyed your blog immensely. I needed this article today.

    • Hi Kathy,

      I’m sorry you’re dealing with bullying. It can be hard to distinguish between feedback and critique and bullying, but I hope this method of working through it might help in the process. I hope you’ve got a good support group around you to support you in dealing with all of this and I’ll be sending my love and hoping that anyone reaching out to you will be kind, sincere, and empathetic in their outreach.

      Grace

  • I have followed Design Sponge on and off for years, and can’t imagine a less offensive site. Makes me glad I’m not blogging much anymore, now that we all seem to have the knives out for one another. Sorry you have had to deal with so many negative comments, and bless you for being so decent about it. Your legacy from this site is a wholeheartedly positive one.

    • Brenda

      I’m definitely very far from perfect and I earned a lot of the negative comment I received, but I can definitely say I’m thankful, overall, for the feedback we’ve gotten over the years and the standard people have held us to. It’s made us better at what we do and how we approach things- and I’m so thankful for that.

      Grace

  • This is such useful essay Grace for our public and private interactions, especially these days when ideologies are constantly, and loudly, clashing and sometimes I get so worked up I jump in, boots and all. I could do with sticking this on a noticeboard where I can be reminded about it daily. I have appreciated the way your essays are always about self reflexivity and how you work hard towards positive change. So many good thoughts here, e.g. Max’s point about saying sorry is good, simple, and something we (I) can easily forget. Thank you.

  • Your breakdown of the process of responding to call outs – and your description of their value – is really useful. Thank you! In calling out others and in responding to call outs, and in interpersonal communication in general, I find that using nonviolent communication is super helpful and feels so much better for everyone involved. It’s an actual communications approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 60s. It makes responding to call outs in the way you’ve described possible (albeit still really challenging) through word choice that takes responsibility for your feelings and needs instead of characterizing or blaming others. The manual is available as a free PDF online. It is, I think, the antidote to so many things ailing our culture today. Just wanted to share that resource here…

  • I think so much of this applies to our face to face conversations as well. Learning to communicate with out fellow humans in a positive way is an important life skill and with so many of us interacting virtually these are valuable lessons!

  • I learned the power of saying sorry when I worked in a call centre. People would ring up and they’d be all worked up and angry, and we were taught to say, “I’m really sorry this has happened.” It took their anger away immediately, they’d soften and they’d be ready to talk, and solve the problem. Saying sorry is not the same as accepting the blame. It’s transformative. People just want to be heard.

  • Dear Grace,
    I think it takes so much courage to be vulnerable online – to talk openly about life’s challenges, and to talk openly about mistakes you’ve made. Thanks for your work with this. The way you spoke about your personal battles and the way you are willing to listen and change to encourage diversity make me feel less alone and encourage me to be more open-minded.
    I know that what you do isn’t easy.
    Thank you,
    Lex

  • Wonderful post!
    What a shame it takes us all so long come to internet wisdom and maturity, usually through the mistakes you mention in your article. I know I was ignorant and brash when I first started out and have a regret or two. I wish when we were first ‘allowed’ to connect to the internet it had come with some kind of mandatory reading pinned post exactly like yours. ☺

  • Great post and well thought out. I’m just starting a blog and haven’t been called-out yet, but I do expect it. I’m going to bookmark this post so I can go back and refresh myself on how to handle when I do. Question: Do you respond to all call-outs or are some so out there that you just don’t respond?
    I’m going to miss your posts as Design Sponge. Good luck in what’s next!

  • You have done an amazing job Grace. You have grown up in front all of us! I started my business when I was a little bit older than you and now it’s 30 years. If we don’t grow and evolve we don’t succeed. I am an Indie business and we ALL need as much promotion and shout outs as possible. When you help some you are really helping us all. My biggest grip is that there is so much of the trendy look whether it’s been your blog, Holly’s or Etsy it’s often styled for a very young audience; a look in my opinion gets tiresome fast. It does leave out a lot of amazing artisans.
    If there’s anything I’ve learned in 30+years of making lampshades is that everyone has there own taste….even if it’s bad…. hahaha:)
    I try to design work that I want to live with and love for a long time; it doesn’t always work but it’s a goal.
    Thanks for all your work. You have been brave!
    Let’s see you on TV! Keep that wonderful Design Sponge name going. You were brilliant with your name.
    Sincerely,
    judy lake
    ps think how many people never start their dream business for fear of failure or making mistakes along the way. Off to my shop on my day off!

  • I was once called out by you, Grace! It was deserved. I responded to an Insta-story with a snide comment I *thought* was something you would…I don’t know, like nod your head in snide agreement? You did not. I can’t remember exactly what you said, but you took some time to explain to me how I’d missed your point, how what I’d said was maybe a big ignorant, even offensive. I felt misunderstood and tried to make some kind of “we’re on the same side!!” argument, but you did not let me get away with it. I don’t know if I apologized then – if I did, it was just to stop the conversation. But I’d like to apologize now. I made you feel upset with my comment. It was a stupid, throwaway joke that didn’t reflect who I really want to be and how I want to treat people. I”m sorry that I did that. A belated thank you for being honest and straightforward with me then. Erin

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