Emotional consent update

It’s been over a year since I originally wrote about consent & emotional intimacy and I’m relieved to say that in that time I’ve had ample practice bringing this concept into my conversations with strangers and loved ones alike. To quote Past Anne:

What’s the right way to go about this? How do we build consent into our conversations? Do we always put the onus on the other person to draw the line or can we find a way to draw the lines together? If I get any sort of grand insight in the coming years of my life, I’ll be sure to share. Right now, I just feel very confused and contemplative about the entire subject.

I’ve found it’s as simple as sharing the concept in conversation and taking the route of “drawing the lines together”. I either do this at the very beginning of a conversation if I happen to know if the topic will likely turn personal (ex: a catch up convo with a friend) OR upon asking a particularly intense question of someone. Don’t worry — I don’t go into every conversation kicking it off with a long winded “emotional consent” intro. I usually say something like this but with “um” or “uh” thrown in:

I’m super curious to learn more about [TOPIC] but I wanted to pause first and make sure we build in emotional consent. Similar to consent when physically interacting with someone, I really believe in the importance of getting emotional consent when it comes to talking about these sorts of things. It’s something I’ve been working on over the last year or so as I can sometimes not be aware of what might be tough to talk about for others. Please just know that you don’t need to answer anything I ask and I fully respect any boundary you put in place. No is very welcome here and I want you to feel extremely safe in chatting with me.

In a wonderful turn of events, this has often led to conversations around consent, boundaries, trust, etc that prove to be fascinating topics to dig into with another person. For example, some fun follow-up questions to this: What are you extremely comfortable talking about that most people find hard? What helps you know you can trust another person? How adept are you at setting and holding boundaries?

I think situationals can be really helpful in knowing when to apply something so here are a few from the last year:

Example of randomly bringing it up mid conversation: At a party pre COVID, “coming out” came up with a group of LGBTQ+ people. I asked someone about their coming out experience only to catch myself and realize how emotionally triggering that could be if they aren’t out, had a bad coming out, etc. On top of that, I was asking them to share to a group of 6 people! Even though we all likely had our own coming out stories, this could be very emotionally loaded for someone. I paused and gave my mini speech about emotional consent to the entire group before opening up the question to everyone rather than that specific person giving them the chance to opt out.

Example of bringing it up before a conversation starts: I’ve been running “Queerantine” calls with friends using conversation menus. While these calls were with friends from various parts of my life who I had great trust with individually, there lacked “collective trust” so, to help build it, I put some guidelines in place before we began including some specifically on emotional consent (“We’ll abide by emotional consent by leaving room for, asking about, sharing, and respecting boundaries.”).

Example of bringing it up with a long term friend: I’ve been lucky to chat even more with various friends due to COVID in the last few months. With people you’ve known for years if not decades, it can be easy to know the touchy subjects that might be difficult to dig into. Recently, I was on the phone with a friend and said something along the lines of, “Hey I was curious how XYZ was going. We haven’t talked about it in a while but I know it was really bringing you down. Of course, no pressure to chat about it at all but I wanted to ask in case it might be helpful. I totally understand if you don’t want to go there right now but know I always want to hear about how you’re doing.” This left space for them to talk about an emotional loaded issue (they did) while knowing I would immediately back off if not.


I am FAR from perfect with this. I recently had an incredible lifechat with a coworker that started as a work call but quickly went personal. At no point during the 90 minutes did I pause to introduce emotional consent and afterwards I felt so disappointed in myself nervous that I accidentally went too far with my questions. I didn’t know what to do but I knew this was someone I would be chatting with again in the future so I messaged them to talk about emotional consent. Thankfully, I didn’t cross any boundaries but, I’d hope if I had, we could have then discussed it and set a better foundation for future conversations.

As I touched on above with the examples, it’s important to note that this shouldn’t just be done with new people. I like to approach friendship even with people I’ve known for decades as an ever evolving thing as we both change. We must leave space to relearn each other and, as part of that, leave space for boundaries.

While it might feel odd to raise this with strangers and loved ones, I’ve mainly been met with great gratitude that I’d care to ask. For many, it sadly feels rare to have this concept considered and introduced into a relationship. The worst reaction I’ve gotten was one of sarcasm and teasing (“Yeahh yeahhhh, Anne, we know”) which I can most definitely deal with!

Have you tried introducing emotional consent into conversations? How has it gone for you? How can we help each other be better here?

2 Comments

  1. Bryan Wagner

    I think, for me, it has to do with intimacy and trust. My emotional or personal content is sometimes shared with people I met recently and sometimes not at all with people I have known for a while. I gravitate towards sharing more intimate information with those who are attending to what I say. Actually listening and processing the content. I find that sadly rare. And love it when it does happen. Thanks for this post and the concept.

    1. Anne McCarthy

      YES! I couldn’t agree more with you. I run into the same thing and find I’m quite sensitive to people who aren’t truly listening. I’d rather not talk no matter how close we are. I hope it becomes more common in time 🙂 Thanks as always for reading/”listening” from afar.

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