Whichever side of the blame dynamics we are on, the experience tends to be highly unpleasant, and usually results in no one getting what they want. Yet blame persists, and presents us with a challenge, regardless of whether we are givers or receivers.
I am distinguishing blame from its distant cousin – the shared endeavor of identifying what contributed to a painful outcome, what can be learned about and from it, and what can be done differently in the future.
From wherever we are, the human possibility exists to transcend the illusion that blame creates: the illusion that everything gets corrected by identifying the culpable party and, most often, by punishing that person. Instead, we have the option of embracing a shared responsibility for attending to a situation that is clearly not working.
There’s really nothing easy about pulling off this kind of transformation. I know, for myself, that I have written about it, I have coached people about it, and I have thought about it on and off for many years. At the end of all this, what stands out to me more than anything is the persistence of the patterns that blame emerges from.
While I know, for example, that I am pretty close to being free of blaming others, and easily wake up from any unconscious blaming as soon as I become aware of it, I also know that my intense and deep interest in learning from situations that didn’t work leads me to explore things in a way that others often perceive as containing blame or defensiveness. I still have much to learn about how to minimize that risk, all the while knowing I cannot eliminate it, no matter how hard I try.
Essentially, any communication, especially about unmet needs, gets filtered through the lens of blame because this is our deep cultural habit: if someone is unhappy, someone is to blame.
Even when not, the common phrase is: “I have no one to blame but myself.” How we are heard is outside of our control; all we can work on is how we speak.
As disappointing as it is that I still haven’t figured out sufficiently how to express myself with more and more clarity about my intentions and what I care about, I am quite satisfied, at least, with my inner progress on letting go of blame. On the other hand, my capacity to absorb and transmute others’ blame towards me is quite far from where I would like it to be, despite all I know and share with others.
Behind every complaint there’s a vision, I say, and yet when hearing someone expressing frustration, blame, or complaint regarding my actions, I am quite challenged to keep my heart open, even though I trust my capacity to maintain an open mind. What that means, in effect, is that while I am able to hear the person and engage with the content, I don’t have access to my simple tenderness for their suffering that is part of their expression.
This piece, unlike many others I write, is not an invitation for others to join me where I have already figured things out for the most part. Rather, it’s an invitation to all of us to step into collective learning and appreciation of the difficulty we are facing. Even as I am writing, I am in the midst of an as-yet-unresolved dialogue with two groups of people I work with that involve some aspect of these dynamics. I am, actively and uncomfortably, in the thick of learning. We’re not done at all.
In case you don’t see why this is even important, I will say this: we exchange blame only because we don’t experience ourselves as having the power to shape things. A collaborative future of the kind I ache for can only happen when enough of us embrace the deep practice of collaboration and choose to step into our full power in every moment.
Blame, and how we respond to it, is both a symptom of inability to step into power, and an impediment, once present, to movement in the direction of empowered relationships.
This is the reason I will continue to grapple with blame, including write about it, until I have enough confidence of having step-by-step guidelines for me and others. Below is my current, and by necessity incomplete, draft.
Working with Our Own Tendency to Blame
Releasing and transcending blame requires us to move towards self-responsibility. This responsibility takes two forms. One is the willingness to take ownership of our own needs and reactions, and the other is the willingness to hold the whole and look for solutions that include the others involved.
The very first step in this journey is recognizing that we are under the seduction of blame. Just to be able to recognize this can give us some room to maneuver. The habit is so deeply ingrained, that it can be entirely invisible, even if we are truly committed, as a matter of general principle, to embrace full self-responsibility. How do we even remember to stop, slow down, and connect internally to know what’s going on? What can we do to create more inner space to notice, and more willingness to move towards self-responsibility?
The one part of the answer I know is that much of the work happens outside the moment of intensity from which blame emerges.
Creating Room for Maneuvering
Developing consciousness doesn’t happen overnight. This is why we all need practices to support us in making the shift. Below are a few practices that I have either used myself or supported others in using. None of them are general intentions.
Instead, they are concrete and invite you to examine and reflect on specific incidents and to acquire more self-knowledge and understanding of others. I would be delighted to hear of additional practices that you have found useful or any that you develop of your own inspiration.
Empathy: Whatever you manage to do in the moment of an interaction, there are all the moments after the interaction took place. One practice that I still find useful on those very rare occasions when I am pulled towards blame, is to focus my energy empathically on the other person. This is an intense practice, because it will require you to shift your attention away from what it’s pulled to. It may be extraordinarily difficult, in fact, precisely because the blame fills up the inner radar screen so fully.
Still, the effect is truly transformational. You can do it the same way that you would do a meditation: whenever you find your attention wandering off into blame and judgment, consciously choose to place your energy back on the fundamental empathic question: what needs could possibly have led the other person to do the action that was painful for you, the action for which you want to blame them?
Inner Connection: This is a double practice, focusing both on the content of what you are blaming someone for, as well as the pull to blame itself.
With regards to the content, this practice is an internal invitation to recognize that blame, like everything else, is an expression of some human needs of yours. The first part is to identify the message of the particular blame you are carrying and pare it down to its essence. This, in itself, can create clarity and provide some relief or opening.
The second part is to concentrate strongly on shifting your focus from what’s wrong with the other person to the underlying needs of yours that are giving rise to the blame. For example, if you blame your partner for not getting back to some bureaucratic office and therefore losing the opportunity to get some service you both wanted, the underlying need could be convenience, reliability within the relationship, or the benefit you were hoping to receive from the service.
Once you recognize your own needs, you can work with this in a manner similar to the previous practice: keep bringing your attention back to your needs whenever you notice that you are focusing again on what’s wrong with the other person.
The second layer of this double practice is an examination of the temptation of blame itself. Because blaming is so profoundly familiar and habitual, most of us rarely ask ourselves questions about it. Blame remains opaque to us because we don’t reflect on it deeply. You can begin by asking yourself some basic questions. There is a reason why we choose blame when we do. That reason is, by necessity, related to a human need that is pulling us towards blame.
Just beginning to ask yourself the following questions can be the start of a new journey: Why is my energy drawn to blaming? Perhaps you will discover that blame provides you with some sense of power and efficacy, some faith that something will be done because whoever is the blamed person would understand how serious the issue is. Or perhaps the blame is a way to create order in the world and hope for rectifying broken things. Since all of us know that blaming is a losing strategy, why is it so important for us to blame, especially given that it’s against so many values so many of us are trying to cultivate?
Power: The reason it’s so crucial to identify what is so appealing about blame is that the pull to blame, although it may give us an illusion of doing something, is ultimately a form of giving power away. When we blame, the only person with any power to change the situation is the other person.
The foundation of this practice rests in the commitment to being powerful in our lives, which, for me, means taking full responsibility for attending to all that’s important in a situation, both for me and for others.
I don’t personally see committing only to my own needs as a fully empowered state. It is only when we can find a solution, a path forward which attends to everyone’s needs, that we have the power to aim for change in a way that will not ultimately backfire.
Once you are confident that you are willing to take that responsibility, you can use the previous practices to identify what’s important to you as well as guess what may be important to the other person, and come up with as many possible avenues of transforming the situation into a collaborative problem-solving experience in which you are a full participant.
This practice becomes ever more important the more formal or structural power the other person has. It may seem like you have no power to shape the outcome, and yet, in actual reality, coming to someone with positional power with a proposed path forward that includes what’s important to them rather than with a complaint is so much more likely to be welcome and lead to a positive outcome.
Preparation: Although the situation may be over, and you may have already expressed the blame, which had whatever specific effect it had, you can still use the situation to explore how you might have wanted to respond to the person instead of through blame. Even if you are unable to actually respond in this way, the continued exploration is likely to move you over time in the direction you want to go. This means recognizing options that might have been invisible to you in previous interactions, whether with this person or others, similar or different situations.
When attempting to find a substitute way of expressing distress other than through blame, what I aim for – and sometimes even succeed at – is to apply the core principle of finding the most caring way to express the most authenticity. This means, usually, letting the other person know the purpose of my expression of distress, what the distress is about, why it’s important to me, and how I would like it resolved, and also, at the same time, affirming the value of the relationship and expressing genuine interest in understanding why the person did what they did that so much didn’t work for me.Obviously, we cannot say all of that in one sentence, and therefore the communication needs to be broken down into much smaller segments.
There are numerous ways to express care, and many ways to frame what is true and authentic.
In the example of the partner who didn’t follow through on a commitment to contact the bureaucratic institution, I would, perhaps, want to focus first on expressing my commitment to learning together how to make things work better in the future for both of us, and then invite the other person to speak to what prevented them from making the call. Or I might say that I have some disappointment to express, and that I am choosing to do it because I want to get closer and closer to a level of full trust between us.
Options to use in the moment
Applying the above practices repeatedly, coupled with revisiting and recommitting to our sense of power and willingness to take responsibility, are likely to create more and more space for us to notice, in the moment, when we are pulled to blaming, and choosing, instead, to speak truth with care and express empathic curiosity.
As soon as you notice that your energy is going towards focusing on the other person with anything other than openness and curiosity about their experience, bring your energy back inward. Take a moment to connect in full with your own needs, as well as make an inner guess of the other person’s needs. Your choice about how to engage will then be based on the full truth you find inside, as well as your assessment of what’s most likely to contribute to connection. Then find a way to say it all with the most amount of care possible.
If you cannot release the pull to blame, it’s unlikely that continuing the conversation you are in will lead to the outcome you want. Your very awareness that you are pulled towards blame can be the foundation of your expression. As transparently and kindly as you possibly can, you can let the other person know that you are not able to engage without blaming them inside you, and that you want to continue the conversation at a time that you are able to be present.
If you can take full responsibility of the actual truth of your experience and resist the temptation to actually engage in blaming, this truth can be a vehicle for connection instead of a stumbling block.
Sooner or later, and with sufficient self-reflection and support from others who are as committed as you are to your full power and responsibility, you will be able to engage with the other person from an intention of creating connection and learning together from what happened.
It is only then that your initial unhappiness can become the occasion for potential transformation in how you relate to each other.
(In the coming weeks I plan to write the second part of this piece, which is devoted to what we can do when someone else blames us, especially if we are in a position of power in relation to the person blaming us.)