Coping with blame

Coaching and mentoring conversations frequently run into the brick wall of blame, most often in one of two common forms: self-blame (assuming responsibility for one’s own or other people’s misfortunes) or other-blame (protecting one’s own self-image and reputation by blaming others). Both forms block the client’s ability to be authentic and to make progress.

The limited research on blame offers some insights into what happens. Politicians, it seems “are motivated primarily by the desire to avoid blame for unpopular actions rather than by seeking to claim credit for popular ones. This results from voters’ ‘negativity bias’: their tendency to be more sensitive to real or potential losses than they are to gains. Incentives to avoid blame lead politicians to adopt a distinctive set of political strategies, including agenda limitation, scapegoating, ‘passing the buck’ and defection (‘jumping on the bandwagon’) that are different than those they would follow if they were primarily interested in pursuing good policy or maximizing credit-claiming opportunities.”[1]

Blame arises from an instinctive need to attribute causation to a negative event – with the underlying assumption that assigning culpability will reduce our anxiety. Frequently, this means shifting causation from ourselves to another identifiable source. It is, in essence, about creating some comforting certainty amidst the discomfort of a negative event that causes strong negative emotions. (These may include disgust, fear, despair and so on.) Blame is also closely associated to the way we make moral judgments. So, for example, Victorian society created a distinction between deserving and undeserving poor, not recognizing – or more accurately, not choosing to recognize — that behaviors that made people “undeserving” (such as alcohol addiction or prostitution) were often caused by poverty, rather than vice versa. Culpability implies deliberate choices on the part of the person blamed (negligence being the choice to ignore something). Yet few situations are that clear cut and it is hard to distinguish between the influence of choices of individuals or groups and the systems that they are a part of.

As a coach or mentor, we can help the client step back from this instinctive response and take a more rational, more constructive perspective on events and causation. The clues to self-blame and other-blame are often quite obvious. For example:

  • The language used – “I” versus “they”; “it’s not my fault”
  • Body posture – submissive or defiant (looking down versus staring ahead)
  • Extreme positions – “They always”, “I never”
  • Seeing the situation only from their own perspective.

To bring the conversation into a more rational space, from which more positive and more helpful emotions can arise, the coach or mentor can ask the client to consider what has happened from a systems perspective. The basic starting question is often: “What else is happening here that we might want to take note of?” The antidote to blame is curiosity.

Exploring the system can be undertaken in a variety of ways, but one of the simplest involves:

  • Defining who and what is involved. The client may perceive only themselves and the immediate protagonists, but a systems perspective identifies other players, who may exert an influence on how each party behaves. Sometimes the players are not people at all, but cultures and processes.
  • Exploring the assumptions, expectations and aspirations of each of the players – where they align, clash and are tangential
  • What happens within this system that made the negative event more or less likely to occur?
  • Based on this understanding, to what extent was the negative event an outcome of an action (or inaction) by one party, or an outcome of the system?
  • How does this change our perception of what happened and/or where blame lies?
  • What happens if we replace the desire to assign blame with the desire to learn?
  • What responsibilities would it be helpful for you and other parties in the system to assume, to prevent future negative events?
  • Can you now let go of the need to blame?

Most people, even those who are naturally more judgmental than others, can emerge from this process with a clearer sense of their personal responsibilities and with greatly reduced self-defensiveness.

[1]Abstract from Weaver, RK (1986) The Politics of Blame Avoidance, Journal of Public Policy, Volume 6 / Issue 04 pp 371-398

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