Blaming others for the difficulties and conflicts we face is an alluring option. It’s ego-protective, in that we save face by pointing out the other person’s transgressions. We’ve been pretty acculturated to blame as a way to engage in conflict and protect ourselves, our assets, our rights. And we may genuinely believe that it wasn’t our fault.
Finding fault and assigning blame isn’t an effective way to work out a dispute or conflict, though it may feel good for a while. Here are some of the reasons it doesn’t work:
- It’s a difficult cycle to break. When blame is set at our feet, most of us defend ourselves vigorously. The conversation then becomes a teeter-totter of blame and defend, blame and defend.
- Blaming often escalates the conflict further. When we find fault with another, we cause face loss, which usually results in stronger emotion from the aggrieved party as they attempt to save face in response.
- It is the rare conflict indeed where all fault lies with one party. In most of the day-to-day situations we find ourselves in, it’s just not that simple.
- When we blame another, we give away some of our own power. By saying, "It’s your fault," we’re also suggesting that we rely on them to fix it. That’s a pretty disempowering way to live in the world.
- Blaming sidetracks us from the important conversation. Because our energy is going into assigning blame or defending ourselves, we’re not talking about what this is really about.
- Blame focuses on the past. Resolving conflict is about the future.
There is something that works better. Next time you’re in a conflict situation, consider contribution instead. Contribution is a future-focused concept that allows us to acknowledge that, in most disputes, each participant said or did something that helped things unfold as they did. By considering contribution, we have a key to figuring out what we can do differently together next time.
By considering our own contribution to the conflict, as well as the other person’s, we free ourselves up to more fully understand the situation. Really understanding what happened usually results in a more effective and satisfying resolution to the conflict. And because contribution is easier to discuss than blame, it helps turn a difficult conversation into a joint exploration that can lead to real change.
Looking at our own contribution is hard, of course, especially when we genuinely believe it’s the other person’s responsibility that things got difficult or the problem occurred. One of the reasons it’s hard is because we usually look at the situation only through our own version of the story. As a mediator I’m trained to look at a conflict through both sides’ eyes and I can tell you that it’s much easier to see everyone’s contribution from that impartial perspective.
To use contribution when you’re in a conflict conversation, try this:
- Consider how an impartial person, such as a mediator, might view the situation. Looking at the situation through another set of eyes helps us out of the narrow view of our own, limited story.
- Consider how such an impartial person might see your contributions. What is it that you said/did, didn’t say/do, that helped contribute to what happened? How would such a person describe the other person’s contributions, without using blame language?
- Acknowledge your own contributions first. If you’re worried that the other person will interpret that acknowledgment as assuming fault, say something like, "I know that most situations like this happen because we each contributed something, even without realizing it. Here’s what I think I contributed. What do you think you contributed?"
- If someone is blaming you for what happened, try re-directing the conversation to more fruitful territory: "I imagine that I did do some things that contributed. Let’s take a few minutes to talk about those and then I’d also like to talk about your contributions. I think we can resolve this if we figure out how not to contribute in the same way next time."
Originally published in The Monadnock Ledger.