Someone screws up, which causes you to screw up. You can blame him/her explicitly (“You screwed up!”) or implicitly (“Let’s do better next time.”)
Either way, that person gets the message: He/she is to blame.
In many difficulties, our focus is on who to blame. Part of it is justified (merely trying to analyze the situation).
But blaming in general is a bad idea. It prevents us from going into deeper, underlying issues. It is often irrelevant, and often wrong or unfair.
Distinguish Blame From Contribution
Blame is about judging. Contribution is about understanding.
Blame is About Judging and Looking Backward
“Who is to blame?” is really three questions:
- Who caused the problem?
- How should he be judged (based on some standard)? Incompetent? Unethical?
- How should he be punished?
Contribution is About Looking Forward
- How did we each contribute to the situation?
- How can we change it going forward?
The Costs of the Blame Frame
Sometimes blame is necessary (e.g. legal cases). Even then, understanding becomes a casualty. Example: After an accident, an auto maker may not make safety improvements for fear that it will be viewed as an admission of fault.
Truth commissions have a trade-off between blame and understanding.
When there is a clear problem, the issue of blame interferes with solving the problem. If something is broken, should we focus on fixing it or finding someone to blame?
When blame is assigned, often other parts of the problems are not corrected.
Three Misconceptions About Contribution
I Should Focus on Only My Contribution
No - do not be that generous. You are trying to fix the problem. Acting this way is still part of the blame mindset.
Putting Aside Blame Means Putting Aside My Feelings
No. Sharing feelings is part of the contribution. And BTW, blaming is often a result of not expressing feelings (it is a proxy for it).
During the conversation, ask yourself: Has the other person acknowledged my feelings?
Exploring Contribution Means Blaming The Victim
You get mugged at night.
Understanding that walking out alone late at night increases your risk of being mugged is not blaming the victim.
Keep in mind: Even if someone else is at fault, the solution may have to come from you. There are plenty of problems in the world - but some aspects are not going to change. You, however, can adapt.
Two Tools For Spotting Contribution
Ask yourself: “What would they say I’m contributing?”
Also: “How would a disinterested observer assess my contribution?”
You can start the conversation with your own contributions. There is always the risk that the other person will simply use it and say “Yes, it is your fault”. If so, state clearly “It is not OK to look only at my contribution. That is not the reality as I see it. Is there anything I’m doing to make it hard for you to look at yourself?”
Share specifically the other person’s actions that caused an outburst or other unhelpful reaction.
Then make a specific request for how the other person can change their contribution - but framed such that it is clear you are requesting it to help you change yours.
The goal is not to get a confession. It is an exploration.