I remember going to a camping site in Norfolk for an event and being ridiculously excited about it. I’d never been camping before and driving into the site and figuring out how to put up a tent (just get somebody else to do it) was quite fun.
That was until I went to pay for my pitch. The owner of the site immediately launched into a tirade about how I’d ruined everything. My car was parked in the wrong place, my tent had been put up badly (ouch) and I’d caused inconvenience to everyone. I stood there, not really knowing what I had done wrong but feeling like I’d committed a terrible act that needed to be punished. For a moment, I felt ashamed. I apologised because I knew that fanning the flames of the owner’s wrath could lead to me being kicked out. “Yeah well,” she responded, “it’s people like you that get on everyone’s nerves.”
The blame game was obviously part of the owner’s conflict resolution style and she’s not alone. I see it most obviously when my niece and nephew fight; I see it when couples get irritated with each other and I see it in companies where the blame culture trickles down from management.
It creates and escalates conflict, that’s for sure. Here’s why:
What is Blame?
People who blame, accuse others of doing a wrongful act. It doesn’t matter what that specific act is, however, it is a moral judgment based on the accuser’s moral standards. In the campsite owner’s mind, parking in the wrong place was inconsiderate and probably disrespectful of her authority and status. For that, I needed to be shamed.
The message that blame sends to the other is that you have lost approval because of that act and you should be punished. It was a shameful thing to do and usually, blame comes from a place of pain and suffering. It’s a way of discharging pain. You want the other person to feel the pain that you do because of their act.
I saw a mother tell off her child in a supermarket and her words were so riddled with hurt that it stuck with me all day: “Look what you did, you stupid, little brat. Always knocking things over, I wish you hadn’t been born.” She hadn’t noticed that her bag had knocked over the apples that had tumbled down around her feet.
As with all conflict, a lot of it is to do with perception. It could also be layered with other emotions and accusations. The act may appear to be trivial to the outsider, but the accuser has a need to transfer previous pain (most likely from an event which has nothing to do with the present act) to the other person using shame and punishment.
- It stops us having to think about our own accountability, behaviour and contribution as it focuses it on somebody else.
- It’s a form of denial which helps to preserve your self-esteem.
- It means it’s no longer your problem to deal with.
When we look at companies with blame cultures, managers usually focus on the error committed by an employee and point to procedures and rules to really emphasise the mistake. The sole focus becomes the mistake. There is no attempt to prevent this mistake from happening again and since blaming is the default mechanism, it prevents an examination into the other factors that may have led to it; poor management, for example.
This stops managers having to face the fact that they may have also done something wrong and it gives the accuser a level of impunity without the discomfort of having to examine their own limitations.
Blame and Shame
Shame is the belief that you are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, acceptance or belonging. These are some of our most basic needs and when we are deprived of them, we feel angry, rejected and humiliated. It can result from a traumatic act, such as abuse, or it can come from social attitudes.
Shame can come from blame. It also motivates us to blame others. Nobody likes that feeling of inadequacy that shame brings with it. That twisting, churning feeling in your stomach that only punishment can rid you of.
What It Means For Conflict
Conflict can become a game that one person has to win and the other has to lose. Blaming puts a person in a position of power as they are judging your actions according to their own moral standards.
It strips out empathy, stops you from exercising compassion and distances you from any form of collaboration, creative problem solving or satisfying relationships. A person who is constantly blamed may feel the need to retaliate with violence, with hurtful comments or some other drastic action. The resentment that it causes can destroy intimacy and damage our self-esteem. You cannot communicate constructively when you feel like that, let alone resolve conflict.
Here’s what to do instead:
Think about what you want from this relationship. If you are constantly examining your behaviour and apologising, explaining, justifying or generally feeling like you are not good enough, is it time to leave? That applies to any relationship.
Start with yourself. What role do you have in this conflict? You need to be honest about your own actions, no matter how painful that is. Examining yourself and being accountable takes courage but in many cases, can be the first step to resolving conflict.
Recognise how you feel. If you feel ashamed, take a moment to understand what that could be linked to. In the case of the campsite owner, my feelings of shame probably arose from society’s ingrained use of extending and withdrawing approval for certain kinds of behaviours. Sometimes, it can be linked to a parent’s way of disciplining you or abuse that you have suffered. Once you have some emotional distance and you are able to communicate with the person blaming you, tell the other person how you felt when they blamed you.
Don’t turn it into a competition. Once you’ve told the other person how you feel, explain to them what happened, your intentions and why you never meant to hurt them. If you are finding this difficult, tell them how hard it is to talk about your feelings, especially shame. This requires a great deal of comfort with vulnerability and a genuine desire to reach a solution.
Explain why it is important to you to resolve this and say how. Is it your relationship? Is it because you want more intimacy with your partner but blame is getting in the way? Perhaps, you want to be seen and recognised for the talented employee that you but you’re only human and we all make mistakes?
Don’t judge. That element of blame needs to go so that you can focus on creative solutions to prevent this from happening again.
Here’s how the conversation might go:
I feel undervalued and underappreciated every time I am blamed for this error. I realise that something has gone wrong and I think it is because of a few things that I have done. I also feel embarrassed by my role in this mistake and have come up with a way to prevent it from happening again. I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again and will do my best to make sure of that but in the meantime, I need the blame to stop and instead, to focus on how we can get our relationship back on track. I can see that you felt angry and disappointed by the mistake and that’s why it’s important to me that we find a way to get past this.
Conveying empathy always helps to encourage trust building and understanding which play a key role in conflict resolution. If you find yourself blaming others, be honest about it. It may be a learned behaviour. Once you recognise it, you can take steps to switch from this default response to empathy, deeper intimacy, understanding and growth. That, in a nutshell, is why I love conflict so much.
As always, let me know what you think by leaving a comment!