In Nonviolent Communication and other communication frameworks, there's the concept of having responsibility for your own feelings and needs. In other words, if you want something from others, it's your job to ask for it. If they're not willing to help you, you should find another way to get your needs met instead of trying to manipulate or force them into satisfying your request.

At the same time, there's also the moral concept of having accountability for your actions. If you do something that hurts someone, you are accountable for that pain. If you're willing and able to stop hurting them, you have a moral obligation to try and do so. However, this seems to be in conflict with the first concept: by being accountable for hurting others, you are (in a sense) taking responsibility for their feelings and needs.

How should one reconcile these things? If something you're doing is painful to someone else but isn't otherwise wrong or harmful, should you hold yourself accountable for the consequences? Or is it their responsibility to deal with it on their own, making whatever requests they wish? How do you decide which principle wins out?

Examples of this sort of conflict:

  • You and an ex-partner frequent the same bar. You know they find it unpleasant to be around you but they haven't asked you to stop. Should you adjust your behavior?
  • You're going through some depression and are engaging in self-destructive behavior that your friend finds hard to watch. Should you hide it from them, or trust that they will make a request if necessary?
  • You're going to a family gathering where relatives have conservative ideas about proper dress. You only feel happy in more permissive clothing. Should you wear something you dislike to avoid offending people?

I'm looking for answers that offer a general approach to resolving these dilemmas, not solutions to a specific one of these examples.

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    If you want a general answer, that's sort of too broad. SE sites are here to discuss actual, specific problems that people have, broad, general ones.
    – Catija
    Jun 29, 2017 at 22:09
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    I have a problem with how to practice my Interpersonal Skills, just as someone on the Software Engineering Stack Exchange could have a problem with competing architectural priorities. This is a very specific question; it's just a theory question, not a practice question. Jun 29, 2017 at 22:33
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    Brilliant question! This is something my sister and I discuss regularly
    – user57
    Jun 29, 2017 at 23:21
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    @John Do you have any suggestions for making it more specific without making it about a certain scenario? Jun 30, 2017 at 14:55
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    @John You may want to post a "No" answer to interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/124/… , then. Jun 30, 2017 at 15:09

2 Answers 2


Taking responsibility for your own feelings and needs and having accountability for your actions aren't at odds.

These concepts are likely intended to be helpful tools in regards to managing your own behavior and relationships. Basically they're frameworks for how you could, or should, conduct your interpersonal relations, not how other people should.

Taking responsibility for your own feelings is the acknowledgement that no one "made you feel this way" they may have done something, but you decide how to react.

Having accountability for your actions, is the acknowledgement that you should at least try not hurt others and understand that you're responsible if you do.

But neither case encourages you to map your personal philosophy onto others. You don't have the right or the ability to do so, so don't.

So effectively these two ideas aren't in conflict. One recommends a way to manage your own feelings, and the other recommends that you not harm others and take responsibility when you do.

As far as the specific examples go... Well unfortunately, like in a lot of situations, you have to weigh your comfort and needs against those of others. Hard rules rarely work, probably better to deal with them on a case by case basis.

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    Doesn't figuring out what might harm others often mean figuring out their needs and what would be harmful to them? That's the conflict I sometimes have trouble with. Jun 30, 2017 at 0:32
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    @Gregory Avery-Weir often people will directly express that they've been harmed. Other times it's more an intuition that what you've done or are about to do will harm them, based on your own perception of how they might feel, or how you might feel in their position.
    – apaul
    Jun 30, 2017 at 0:41
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    I'm less concerned with the challenge of empathy and more with the fact that, by anticipating how they might feel and choosing my behavior based on it, it seems like I'm saying "I would 'make them feel this way,' so I won't do that, in order to spare their feelings." That seems like taking responsibility for their feelings. It sounds like you don't agree and I'm interested in more details on why there's no conflict. Jun 30, 2017 at 1:13
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    @Gregory Avery-Weir part of having any kind of relationship with other people is the willingness to anticipate and accommodate others. Also, I believe that the advice recommended by the framework was to "take responsibility for your own feelings" and not "avoid taking responsibility for the feelings of others"
    – apaul
    Jun 30, 2017 at 1:56
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    That last is an interesting statement; I'm not sure I agree with it, but I'd like to see it in the answer! Jun 30, 2017 at 3:28

Byron Katie likes to ask, whose business are you in? There are 3: mine, theirs and God's. I only belong in "mine" and to go outside of that is to go beyond my ability to know or control.

Can I take responsibility for another person's reaction? No, I cannot.

But you asked more specifically - what if I am causing them pain, am I not accountable for that pain? From the point of view of a compassionate human, if you cause them pain you will suffer too. To hurt them is to feel the hurt yourself. Now you are accountable to the pain you caused yourself.

Your examples are tests of integrity. They all seem to ask: should I change my behavior or hide my behavior and feelings to avoid hurting others? Choose integrity over worry about causing harm. Once you find that integrity you will not worry about the harm, if there is harm caused at all, because you will have acted from the right place. This is the principle that helps you decide what wins out.

In each example you assume the other's reaction rather than ask. The invitation in each example is for more communication. Since this site is about interpersonal skills I would say this is the skill: notice when you are in someone else's business and when you find you are, ask.

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