The blaming and the blamed
Picture the following dialogue in a tense relationship:
A: Look, if you were different, things wouldn´t have got this bad. Sorry, but this is your fault: you are so stubborn!
B: You are so right. Now that you say it, I can see that it really is my fault. I am going to work on it from now on. Thanks for telling me and helping me improve.
Does that sound familiar to you? Unlikely. In real life, statement A will not lead to statement B.
Instead, person B will accuse person A back, or defend her- or himself, or end the conversation. If that is not the type of reaction you are seeking, then blaming might not be the most effective strategy.
Why doesn’t blame help towards improvement? What could work instead? And do you handle it when someone blames you and you don´t want to end up in conflict?
Psychological response to blame
When we blame or accuse someone, we are putting that person down. We are talking from the superior position of someone who is (closer to) perfection and can see how things are. We are holding the other person responsible. We hope the other person will acknowledge the fault and improve the situation.
But acknowledging fault and designing ways to improve is not precisely what is going on in the head of the blamed person. The blamed person is busy with something else: feeling offended and thus very uncomfortable. It is not a state of mind in which you would naturally process what the blaming person just said, and whether it was justified or not.
When we humans feel bad, uncomfortable, unsafe, we try to change things and restore safety. Physiologically, we are equipped with a mechanism that activates when we feel threatened: our sympathetic nervous system fires up and, through a hormonal cascade, prepares us for “fight or flight”.
In a civilized environment, the blamed person might not start fighting or running straight away. But the reaction will likely be an alternative of the same: verbal counteroffensive, defence or escape from the situation. For example, the blamed person accuses back, or starts explaining why the accusation was unfair and wrong. Another time, the blamed person changes the subject or ends the talk altogether.
How not to end up in conflict
When you are in a situation where either somebody has accused you, or you are the one close to blaming someone else (because you believe a problem is their fault), you know that if you act on impulse, you might easily end up with the “fight-or-flight” sort of response, from yourself or the other person, or both of you.
As an alternative to acting on the blame impulse, you have the choice of avoiding the conflict and trying collaboration instead. While it is not always easy to resist judgement and to react calmly, if you manage to do so, your chance of improving your communication with the other person and finding a solution will increase significantly.
If you choose not to go into the conflict and to seek a solution instead, your strategy can be, surprisingly or not, identical, whether you were about to blame or you were on the other side, blamed by someone else. We often shift from one side to the other, anyway.
To avoid a fight-or-flight response and seek improvement, implement the following principles:
1. Recognize when you are at risk of blame and a “fight-or-flight” response
Learn to get the control light on, in your mind, any time when you are close to accusing someone, and every time that someone blames you.
You know that, depending on what you do next, you can still influence whether the communication gets better or worse.
Understanding the psychological principle behind your thoughts and feelings can, at such moments, help you to manage your anger or anxiety and to hold back from any unconstructive action.
2. Validate the concern in the background
Every time somebody blames another person, or was about to do so, it is because of being concerned about something. The fear in the background might be justified or unjustified, but in any case, it is real: someone really is feeling concerned. As long as it stays like that, the situation is difficult to improve. That is why the key to moving on lies in finding out what the concern is and how it could be reduced.
If it is your concern, you can express it (preferably after pointing out a common goal) and ask the other person for what you need in order to feel less worried.
If it is the other person´s concern, explore it from the perspective of curiosity (as opposed to the perspective of defence): What is the concern? What makes the other person feel like that? What would help to reduce the concern? What could you do towards improving things? Ask, rather than assume.
E.g. “I can feel you are concerned. What are you afraid might happen? What do you need from me in order to feel less concerned?”
3. Turn the situation round: instead of fight, offer a safe and collaborative atmosphere and seek a solution
A safe atmosphere is one in which you and the other person feel that it is safe to be open about your own concerns and even weaknesses. The other person needs to feel that naming the worries won’t turn things against her or him. This goes hand in hand with a collaborative atmosphere: the atmosphere where you both feel you are on the same side, that you are a team that wants the same thing, despite any different opinions or approaches to it.
If you manage to help the other person to feel safe and to see the scope for collaboration, the other person will likely react very differently; there’ll be no need for accusation, defence or escape.
The way to set up such an atmosphere is to point out your common goal: something that matters to both of you.
Talk about the goal and suggest seeking a solution together.
As you can see, the biggest part of the strategy is about your mindset: choosing collaboration above fight. Once you make that choice, your (unconscious) non-verbal communication will do a big part of the job automatically, and often it is enough to add a few words, especially if you know what the concern is:
e.g. “I can see you are concerned, perhaps because we have different approaches to things. But I believe we actually want the same: we both want “….” to go well. How could we make it work?”