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Accountability 103: Having An Accountable Conversation

There are many layers to uncover if we want to create a culture of accountability in organizations or even in one’s life.

We unpacked the root word of accountability.  So that when it came to taking accountability, the explanations and descriptions of what you did would not lead you down a path of “not being accountable.”

You then learned to hold yourself accountable (take  accountability) without feeling guilty, finding fault, or blaming, which by the way is the first of two steps to “having accountable conversations.”

Now it’s time to actually have the conversation.

An “accountable” conversation is a dialogue in which both parties hold themselves accountable, i.e. assume one hundred percent ownership, without fault, blame, or guilt for the missed outcome, agreement, task, or project. The person initiating the “accountable conversation” MUST take ownership first.


Having an accountable conversation is the verbal skill of addressing a missed outcome in a blame-free way. It begins with stating your intention for having the conversation, holding yourself accountable (taking accountability), listening patiently if the other person wants to respond then creating a new agreement to move forward.

“Accountable conversations” are especially important in any one-on-one interaction but more so on teams, where the environment can be a breeding ground for resentment, judging, blaming, etc. All those things we wish we didn’t do and still do because we are human. They invite others to be accountable and encourage collaboration.

It is important to note that the reason for having the conversation is not to get the other person to confess or be accountable. It is to free you from being haunted by the replay of the situation and how you behaved. So, if you initiate the conversation and the other person does not respond just thank them for listening.

For example:

Dr. Stevens, an established emergency room doctor, diagnosed a sick child with the stomach flu, wrote an order for medication, and handed it to the nurse. Rebecca, a recent nursing school graduate, looked at the order and asked, “Dr. Stevens, did you mean to write this order this way?” 

Dr. Stevens had prescribed this medication for other children with stomach flu many times before. Because of his need to look smart in front of his colleagues, and feeling insulted that a new nurse would question the order of a superior, Dr. Stevens decided to humiliate Rebecca. 

Snatching back the order and looking around at his coworkers, he asked in a loud, sarcastic tone, “Attention, everyone! Has anyone ever seen me write an order this way?” The room fell silent, and Rebecca shuffled off, thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated. 

Dr. Stevens and Rebecca never spoke again after this incident, even though they often shared the same shift. They never communicated about patients’ charts or medications. Other nurses were afraid to approach Dr. Stevens with questions or concerns about patients. This single incident encouraged a culture of disrespect and silence in the emergency room and endangered the lives of patients. 

Dr. Stevens’ handling of the question haunted him for years until he decided to have an accountable conversation with Rebecca. Though they no longer worked together, he prepared what he wanted to say, visited her, and said:

Rebecca, my relationships with my co‐workers are very important to me, and years ago, I didn’t always behave in a way that demonstrated this. I intentionally humiliated you in front of our colleagues, didn’t answer your question hence increasing the risk of medical errors in the ER. I did it so I wouldn’t look foolish in front of my peers. Of course, that behavior caught up with me, and when a patient died, I finally reached out for help, and here I am.  

After initiating the conversation, Dr. Stevens felt relieved to have finally accounted for what he did and did not do; accept accountability for his actions, and then have the “accountable” conversation. His acknowledgment gave Rebecca room to acknowledge her accountability if she chose. 

If you are considering trying this process, here are some guidelines he was coached to use to prepare for the accountable conversation:

  1. Be authentic and mindful. First, make sure that having the conversation is something you really want to have and do. Then begin your conversation with an informal tone. Avoid lecturing the other person, or the other person may infer that you are not genuine.
  2. Use “I” statements versus “you,” “our,” or “we” statements. The use of “I” statements is a reminder that you are truly interested in resolving the conflict for the benefit of the relationship and sends the message of accountability.
  3. Prepare and practice the conversation. Write out what you want to say, practice it, and schedule a time to have the conversation.
  4. As mentioned above, begin the conversation with an opening statement that highlights the benefit or outcome to you and state it, not as a goal but as something that is present and active. For example, “I have a relationship with you that I value and will continue to value,” Instead of, “I would like a relationship with you that I value…”

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