Overcoming the Blame Reflex

“It’s your fault!” “No, you’re the one who…!” Sound familiar? If you’ve spent any amount of time around children, you’ve likely heard these words or something like them many times. Unfortunately, children aren’t the only ones who get caught up in this blame game. We can’t seem to outgrow the reflex, and it shows up a lot in our adult lives too. When things go wrong, our first reaction is often to look for the person to blame. Yet, when we stop to think about it, blame doesn’t fix the problem, and it usually makes it worse.

So why do we do it? Maybe it’s habit: That’s the way people talk to each other in our lives, and we’ve never stopped to wonder if it’s a good thing. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism: We want to make sure someone else gets blamed instead of us. But the deeper reason, I suggest, is that we like simple explanations for what happens in our lives. It’s easier to find the guilty party and punish them than to figure out all the reasons why things went wrong. And that reflex is fed by the belief that everything in life can be reduced to simple cause and effect explanations.

Why is this a problem? Because when it comes to human interactions, there is no simple cause and effect. Sure, often there is someone who has done something wrong. But focusing only on who’s to blame almost guarantees that the problem will happen again, and again. The person being blamed naturally becomes defensive and angry, which makes it impossible for them to see what they might do better or differently. The person doing the blaming has no incentive to look at their own behaviour, to see how they might have contributed to the problem. And nobody involved looks at the bigger picture and the systems or culture that might result in anybody, in the same situation, making the same mistake.

So what do we do instead? In their book Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton and Heen recommend that we shift the conversation from blame to contribution. When we look at contribution, we look at all sides of the story, and we avoid trying to make a single person bear full responsibility. This leaves room for everyone to explore how they might, unintentionally, have contributed. It leads to a calmer, more open conversation. This doesn’t mean that there will be no consequences for wrongdoing. But it should allow us to reach a better understanding and lead to effective, lasting solutions.

So next time you’re tempted to say, “It’s all your fault” or “It’s all my fault”, I encourage you to pause, ask, describe, and analyze: What happened? What was going on at the time? What did each person in the situation know, believe, or understand? What factors might have contributed to the issue? Fair warning: You might actually need to engage in a difficult conversation with the other person to find out the real answers to your questions. But if you go in with questions instead of accusations, your chances of success will skyrocket.


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