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Who is to Blame in Conflict?

I’ve been struggling with the concepts of blame, accountability and wanting others to take responsibility. What’s the connection?  Accountability and responsibility are factors in strong working relationships.  Those who hold the value of taking responsibility for themselves can sometimes push that onto others. ‘I want them to take responsibility for this” is a phrase that has presented itself while facilitating a conflict resolution process.  Is this just another way of laying blame?

Blaming is more than just a process of allocating fault, it can become a process of shaming others and searching for something wrong with them. When we blame, we often believe that other people have bad intentions or lack ability. A reminder of the fundamental attribution error: People excuse themselves for the same negative behavior that they blame others for doing.

Blaming provides an early and artificial solution to a complex problem. It provides a simplistic view of a complex reality: I know what the problem is, and you’re it. Blame generates fear and destroys trust. Blame therefore makes curiosity difficult and reduces the chances of getting to the real root of a problem.

I am called to support others in situations of low trust and high fear. People in these situations often hope mediation is an opportunity to investigate, to try to find the ‘truth’ about a situation.  They are taking a ‘blame’ approach and searching for a simplistic view of a complex reality.

Alan Sharland*, is an author and mediator who writes about blame. His (and my) hope for mediation is to enable participants to simply acknowledge that there is a problem and support them to find another way of viewing the situation or of responding to it that works for both.  Seeking a solution that will fit both their needs.

This ‘no-blame’ approach can be seen as ‘soft’ or ‘wishy washy’, but would a reframe that focuses on accountability change that? Accountability recognizes that everyone may make mistakes or fall short of commitments. Becoming aware of our own errors or shortfalls and viewing them as opportunities for learning and growth so we can be more successful in the future.

Accountability creates conditions for constructive conversations in which awareness of the complex reality is sharpened and in which we work to focus on inquiry.  To seek root causes, understand the system better, and identify new actions and agreements. The focus of this approach is to support participants to;

  • reflect on the situation,
  • try to make some sense of it,
  • reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed by it by supporting them to give voice to their emotions and thoughts about the situation,

and through this;

  • to start to find their own ways of dealing with it more effectively
  • to create something that will work in the future, where it didn’t seem to work in the past

A blame approach rarely builds understanding or provides clarity.  It simply provides an opportunity to ‘vent’ the anger arising from this distress. It does not resolve or ‘heal’ that distress. In the ‘blame approach’, the focus is not on the problem, nor on finding a way forward, nor on learning for the future.  It is simply on avoiding blame and redirecting it to others. Perhaps we can see our role, but blame others for not taking responsibility.  Hanging blame on someone doesn’t teach us anything about why a conflict arose or why the response was destructive.  It suppresses the conflict, thus avoiding it. It does not resolve it.

Using a systems thinking perspective to explore the pressures on the participants involved opens up the conversation. It helps to build awareness of larger forces at work that are having an impact.  Using inquiry to prepare participants to participate in a no-blame conservation can be helpful.  Questions such as;

  • What information might they be missing that would help them understand this person’s behavior?
  • How might this behavior make sense?
  • What pressures might they be under?
  • What systems or structures might be influencing this behavior?
  • What’s another way of explaining the other person’s actions?
  • How might the other person describe the situation?
  • What was your role in creating the situation?
  • What requests or concerns do you need to bring to the other person?
  • How will you state them in order to get the results you want?
  • What do you think your learning is in this situation?

A no-blame approach can be an acceptance of ‘what is’. It is an approach which deals with a complex reality – that something has occurred that has caused stress, unhappiness, and other upsetting feelings. It seeks to learn from what has happened, not only how to deal with it differently in the future but also how to deal with the distressing feelings arising from it.

The point is that a no-blame approach enables learning for the future in that it allows an open discussion of what has happened, so that all the issues can be taken into consideration, without the need to keep any from disclosure for fear of condemnation from others. It is about being accountable and creating a space for others to take accountability.

*Sharland, Alan  –  How to Resolve Bullying in the Workplace: Stepping Out of the Circle of Blame to Create an Effective Outcome for All

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