Ever had a loved one disappoint you?
This isn’t just hypothetical — it’s real life. When we’re dealing with family or friends — or even our coworkers — accountability gets tricky.
While our loved ones can sometimes disappoint us (just like anyone else), we’re trying to nurture a long-term relationship.
Can we confront these issues without alienating our family and friends? Yes, it is possible, but not by focusing on accountability.
When People Mess Up
My family and I headed off to vacation in Italy, minus my son, who stayed home because of other commitments. We left the country while leaving him with only three rules:
- No golf shoes in house
- No firing high-calibre weapons in the living room
- No raucous, huge parties with out-of-control teens
Can you guess which rule he didn’t follow?
The party rule, of course.
I wake up in Rome with a real-time video from my neighbour of what’s happening at my home back in Utah. It’s loud, to say the least.
Immediately, I call my son to get an explanation. No answer. So, I resort to having this accountability conversation via text message.
Where should I even start?
I’ve spent 25 years studying accountability, but in the past few years, I’ve thought more about these special cases — the times we have to hold our loved ones, life partners, sons, daughters, uncles, cousins accountable. These are people we care about deeply and have a sustained relationship with.
How do we hold these loved ones accountable? Don’t.
Accountability is NOT the Goal
Accountability is about making someone to take responsibility. Wouldn’t it be better if they claimed responsibility on their own? Of course.
Why not aim for accountability?
If your goal is accountability you’ll provoke fear, not empathy. Forcing someone to take responsibility for their actions provokes the opposite of what we want.
Instead, see accountability as the effect — not the goal. If you handle these moments right, accountability happens naturally. People own their mistakes and take positive steps forward.
The goal is emotional connection. When we connect emotionally, we open the door to responsibility.
How To Establish Emotional Connection
Connecting with your loved ones during these crucial moments requires intentionality. We can’t impulsively react in an effort to make them take responsibility.
We need to change the way we think about these crucial moments. These are people with whom we need a relationship of high and sustained trust — and we want them to take responsibility for their actions.
Enter the conversation with a fresh outlook — one that prioritises the other person and their perspective. Here’s what that looks like:
1. Assume the best.
Come into the conversation assuming they wouldn’t do this unless something big was going on. Does that mean they don’t make mistakes? No, we all make mistakes. But maybe they didn’t have ill intentions.
2. Connect emotionally.
Ask, “How are you feeling about this?” Don’t just tell them how you feel.
3. Explore natural consequences.
Help them empathise with all those who are affected. If they don’t empathise, they won’t (and can’t) take responsibility. And if they don’t feel safe, they can’t empathise. Our responsibility is to create a context in which empathy can take place and they can see what naturally happened because of their decision.
4. Let them take responsibility for their choices with as much integrity as you can offer.
Is this the soft version of accountability? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s the hardest form of accountability there is because it gives others the opportunity to step up and own what they’ve done.
When I come home from Italy, the house is pristine and the lawn is mowed. My son hovers around asking lots of questions about our experiences on vacation. After we unpack, he wants to talk.
How do I start that conversation? I aim for emotional connection.
“How do you feel about this conversation?”
He says, “I feel relieved, embarrassed, and sad about what I’ve done.”
I say, “I understand — I’ve done dumb things too. How do you feel about the party?”
“Honestly, Dad, I feel responsible. I locked all the doors and threw the party in the garage. I also felt important. A few weeks ago a friend had a party and everyone thought he was so cool. I also feel like I let you down — I was dishonourable.”
“I understand. Who else do you think was affected by this?”
His eyes welled with tears. “I know I hurt you and violated my trust with you. I’m sorry.”
Are there still consequences? Yes. But how we approach those consequences changes.
It’s not about coldly enforcing a reprimand. The goal is to connect emotionally — and often that emotional connection leads to people taking responsibility for their actions.
Will people always take responsibility after you connect emotionally? No. But they’ll never take responsibility if you’re not emotionally connected.