A lesson from theatrical improv can teach us a powerful way to respond effectively to blame.
“I’m getting blamed for everything,” she said. “Every time I talk to my husband about our problems, he blames me.” She wanted to know, understandably, how to stop the cycle and the blameshifting.
Mediators ask me how to manage blame too, how to get people off a cycle of blame and defensiveness.
So I’m going to tell you my favorite approach. It’s the one I teach most often to my clients and the one that gives them the biggest relief. It’s the one I teach mediators how to use at the mediation table. And the one I turn to most often when I’m getting blamed.
What you must know first
Before I tell you what it is, I want you to understand something. This approach will seem, on first blush, to be backwards. Counterintuitive. Maybe even unfair. Why is it, you may wonder, that I’m the one who needs to change what I’m doing when I’m not the one walking around doing all the unfair blaming?
Good question. Here’s the answer: Because you’re the only one you can rely on to do something different. You can’t reliably get them to change their habit, their approach, their present frame of mind. You’re the only one you can rely on because, during conflict, you can’t make someone else change just because you really want them to.
Here’s another answer: Because there is a nugget of truth in their blaming. I know you may not like this answer (that’s why I listed it second). Something they’re saying has a tiny piece of the truth in it. It’s hard to see that nugget because they’re overdoing it, because your ego wants to defend your goodness, because the two of you may be in a long-term dance together, each in your comfortably uncomfortable roles.
Here’s yet another answer: Because you must stop the dance, get out of the comfortably uncomfortable roles you have been in together. Otherwise, nothing will change.
Why technique alone will fail you
There’s something else I want you to know. I shy away from teaching technique because good technique coupled with careless intention is doomed to failure.
Your frame of mind and your intentions matter a great deal when you’re learning and using any conflict resolution technique. When they’re mismatched, it shows. Your technique comes across as disingenuous, even manipulative. And that can actually escalate the conflict.
My favorite approach when I’m getting blamed
My go-to approach when getting blamed is borrowed straight from improvisational theatre: Accept the offer and move it forward.
Accepting the offer and moving it forward means that your job in the moment you’re getting blamed isn’t to push back, turn the tables, defend, or explain. Your one job in that moment is to accept that’s the way they see it and to understand why they believe it. That’s it. That’s your intention: To understand their point of view and work with it for a few minutes.
It is a short time, those few minutes, compared to hours or a lifetime of the blame game, yes?
When you’re getting blamed, accepting the offer and moving it forward might sound something like this:
- Say more about that.
- What am I saying or doing that contributed to this?
- Tell me about the things I’m saying or doing that lead you to conclude it’s my fault.
- Ok. I can understand that I contributed something to this, too. Let’s talk about what I could do differently from here on.
Your objective here is to play this out fully. I like to end this part of the conversation with, “Have you had the chance to discuss everything important about how I’ve contributed to the problem?” By asking this, I’m confirming that I’ve listened fully to their perspective. Only once I’ve got a “yes” do I then move to the next part of the conversation.
The second half of the conversation
Often, once you’ve shown your willingness to allow their concerns to be understood and acted on, the other person will more freely acknowledge their own contributions.
Sometimes, they need a prompt. In my conversations, my prompt tends to go along these lines: “Now that we’ve discussed how I’ve contributed, let’s talk about your contributions, too.”
Very occasionally, the other person will resist this request, though it is rare if I’ve really done my one job properly in the first part of the conversation. If you find resistance at this stage, then odds are quite good that you did not do your one job properly. Stop kidding yourself and go back and do it right. You gain no forward momentum by simply returning to the old conflict tug of war.
In those very rare instances where there is still obstinate resistance to exploring contributions from both sides, don’t make the mistake of lecturing them. Do not say, “I let you have your say and I expect you to do the same for me.”
Return to your intention: To understand. Say, then, something like this: “Why not?” or “What do you mean?” Hear them out. You are likely to find out something important if you can generally keep your ears wide open and your mouth mostly shut.
If (and this almost never happens, so if it’s happening to you, take a good hard look at how honestly you’ve adopted the intention I suggested) they still cannot have the second half of the conversation, take a break for now. Stop trying to push and shove. It will not work. They may be emotionally hijacked and not able to do what you’re asking right now.
So, stop for now. I like to stop and also convey that this is a temporary pause in a conversation I want us to return to. I might say something like, “Ok, let’s set this aside for now. There are two things on my mind that make this something I need us to return to soon. The first is that for us to sort this out once and for all, we’ve probably both got to do a few things differently. The second is that it’s hard for me to feel willing to make the changes you want when I don’t see your willingness to do the same. I’ll continue to ponder what you’ve said to me today.”