Blame vs contribution — the differences are straightforward to grasp intellectually, yet sometimes tricky to employ effectively in conflict situations. Here are a few ways to shift a conversation from blame to contribution without appearing to blame the victim.
A reader emailed me recently:
I really like the idea of contribution rather than blame. I think the framework is right. I have had problems, though, when people accuse me of gaslighting or blaming the victim. Do you have ideas for getting past that? What is the difference really between victim blaming and contribution?
At the risk of an incomplete treatment of a nuanced subject in the length of a blog post, let me try to parse the differences and offer a few practical insights.
When we blame someone, we’re assigning culpability, liability, wrongdoing.
During conflict in ongoing business and personal relationships, blame can be as much a defensive act as an act of offense. In conflict situations, blame can be understood as an ego-protective device, one so ingrained, perhaps even with evolutionary roots, that we may slip into it with unsettling ease.
Blame is such an ego-soothing tactic that we may even use it in our apologies, subconsciously protecting ourselves even when we screwed up. One reason all those “fake apologies” uttered by the famous fall so flat is that they embed blame instead of taking responsibility. “I’m sorry you were offended,” for instance, assigns wrong to those who felt offended — for feeling offended.
When we contribute, we play a part in something or in the occurrence of something, intended or not.
During conflict resolution, we use contribution to understand the part we each played in what happened and the part we can each play in what will happen from here forward.
The difference between blame and contribution can be subtle and nuanced, and that’s what can make working with these ideas tricky.
Blame vs contribution
Blame is an attempt to get someone to own wrongdoing. Contribution, in the way I use it in conflict resolution, is an attempt to explore the possibility of a shared (though perhaps not equal) role.
Blame contributes to conflict (see what I did there? It’s part of what creates or continues conflict). Contribution can also contribute to conflict, when it’s handled badly or misunderstood.
Blame hands over power. When we blame, we make it their job to fix it, inadvertently giving them the power to address or not address a problem that affects us. Contribution, handled well, takes power back.
Even when we intellectually understand the difference between blame and contribution, and even when we agree that contribution is a useful construct for conflict resolution, it’s still tricky to pull off.
It’s tricky because acknowledging contribution makes us vulnerable. We’re saying, “I had a part in this.” We’re hoping we won’t be left out in the cold, the only one to acknowledge our role in what happened.
It’s tricky because we’re sensitive to the possibility that acknowledging our role will allow others to manipulate that acknowledgement into blame — by them, by their legal team, by someone above us in the organizational chart.
It’s tricky because sometimes we feel the need to stay “defended,” to protect ourselves from misinterpretation, harsh judgment, or others’ backstabbing.
It’s tricky because sometimes it’s really hard to see what we contributed and so much easier to see what they contributed. Research suggests that we may truly experience less responsibility when the impact of our action is negative.
And it’s tricky because when we use it to understand what happened in the past, we risk getting stuck there, repeatedly chewing over what we each did or didn’t do. Getting stuck chewing over the past is such a major factor in failed conflict resolution, that I wrote a book, in part, to address it.
Gaslighting and victim blaming
If none of that makes dealing with contribution tricky enough, let’s add the spectres of gaslighting and victim blaming to the list.
Gaslighting is sowing the seeds of doubt in someone’s mind as a way to manipulate them. The term comes from the classic Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight, based on an earlier play.
Victim blaming is just what it sounds like. It’s a form of fault-finding, placing partial or full responsibility for what happened onto the person or persons who suffered the impact.
Now, that’s murky, right? Doesn’t that sound a bit like contribution?
The difference can feel so subtle, but there is a difference: When we blame the victim, we’re saying, “It’s your fault that it happened to you.” When we explore contribution, we’re saying, “Let’s discuss how to avoid it happening again.”
The difference lies in intention. Is our goal to get ourselves or someone else off the hook by putting fault on the shoulders of the injured or damaged party? Or is our goal to partner with someone to consider steps we can all take to avoid the conflict from unfolding badly again in the future?
Inevitably, when I discuss this in workshops, someone raises their hand and says, “So are you saying that it’s the woman’s fault that she was raped?”
That question is based on a faulty premise: It suggests that because the blame vs contribution construct is insufficient in certain kinds of settings or situations, such as criminal or legal matters, we shouldn’t use it anywhere.
Working effectively with contribution
When you’re trying to apply the idea of contribution in conflict resolution, particularly with colleagues, family members, friends, and others who are in ongoing relationship, here are some ways to employ it effectively:
Focus on the future. Since it’s so easy to slip inadvertently into blame when discussing what happened in the past, get off the slippery slope altogether by focusing on future contribution. Ask, “How can we each contribute to preventing this from happening again?” or “How can we each contribute to approaching the problem in a different way next time?”
Don’t weaponize contribution. We use blame like a figurative hammer; let’s not use contribution in the same way. Consideration of contribution is more effective as an invitation than a demand. Instead of, “Conflict takes two, so what’s your contribution?” try, “I wonder what we’d each do differently next time…”
Go first. If you want to shift your own conflict resolution conversation to contribution, acknowledge your own contributions before inviting them to.
Avoid quid pro quo. Don’t make their acknowledgement of contribution a requirement after acknowledging your own. If you want to acknowledge your own contribution, do it, without expectation that they’ll do the same — yet or maybe ever. Do it because you believe it’s a helpful construct, not because you require them to be ready with the same thinking.
Pay attention to timing. Since we make ourselves vulnerable when we acknowledge contribution, there’s a readiness factor to discussing it. I find that people need to be in a non-defensive state for discussions of contribution to be fruitful, and I avoid raising it for consideration until the air in the room tells me it might be time.
Take care with language. Don’t ask them to “admit contribution.” Admit is a blame word, as in, “admitting guilt.” I find that “acknowledging contribution” or “considering contribution” are phrases that yield better results.