Communication Managing Self Neuroscience

Can you hear the pain behind all blame?

Written by Julia Menard

“Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain.” … Brene Brown

As a workplace mediator and leadership coach, I often hear a lot of blaming:
“It’s your fault that we didn’t do this.”
“It’s your fault because you did that.”
“It’s your fault we are in this mess!”

Blaming someone for our own pain is a natural thing to do.  It’s absolutely normal to blame when we are in conflict. Sometimes we blame others; other times we can blame ourselves.

Whether blaming someone else or blaming oneself for the current unattractive view, both of those stances serve an important purpose.  They stop the pain.  If I can believe it’s your fault (or my fault), then I have an explanation.  I can stop searching for what is going on here and put a lid on the whole thing.  If it’s your fault, or my fault, I can resign myself to no-action-required-from-me going forward.  Any action required, when I’m in blaming mode, is in someone else’s hands.  If I blame you, then you are the one that has to do something differently, not me.  So I can almost relax – this is your problem now, not mine.  All I need to do is monitor you – you need to change and I am going to wait to see when you will change.

Are you changing yet?

Conversely, if I am blaming myself in a conflict dynamic, I still can resign myself to no-action-required-from-me-going-forward because blame is not the same as taking responsibility.  Blame is linked to shame.  If I blame myself, I am going to feel ashamed of myself.  Shame is crippling.  Shame is not empowering.  Shame stops me from standing in my power and taking charge. Shame stops me from looking at my part and making choices about what I want to change.  Blaming myself keeps me frozen.

There is also a symbiotic relationship with blame.  If I blame you for my pain, there is a chance you might blame yourself too.  If you blame yourself for my pain, then everyone is frozen.  The blamer is waiting for the “evil one” to change and the “evil one” is waiting for the persecutor to leave.

No movement.  No one is changing in that dynamic!

Whether I blame myself or blame someone else – blame stops us from going forward.

Blame says: “This is the End of the story.”

Blame says:  “The conflict is due to you (or me).”

The thing is, in conflict, we need to keep going forward.  Conflict is no one person’s fault.  That’s much too simple of an explanation for conflict.  Conflict is a symptom.  It’s a symptom of complexity. It’s a symptom of a systems issue.  It’s a symptom of change required, for sure.  It’s just often not as easy as you change.

What I notice every time I work with parties to bring down the heat and move toward constructive dialogue, is that there is a lot going on.  Most recently, a few people who were stuck in blaming each other, stood back and realized their division had doubled in growth in just over a year.  They had multiple changes and chaos brewing and new needs emerging as a result of the rapid growth.  Everyone knew that was going on, but no one had linked it to the “interpersonal conflict.”  Up until I got involved, people were narrowly focused on blaming one person or the other.

After a conversational space for dialogue was opened up, parties started to make links to ongoing frustrations and factors that had led to their “blow out.”  Of course, having a “crunch” happen in the workplace is never wanted or warranted.  No one sets out in the morning to shout, slam a door, or cry.  These are often a result of a series of smaller incidents that had not been explored well.  The dynamic of blame can be laid over these factors early on, and can get fossilized.  Staying in blame almost predicts a crunch incident.

Some research indicates that we even process blame in a different part of our brains than we process positive comments.  When we see someone do something we believe is “bad” in some way, this perception goes through our amygdala – the alarm parts of our brain, whereas praise happens in the more logical areas of our brain.

This piece of research points to how to turn blame around – whether it’s us blaming others, others blaming us, or us blaming ourselves.  If our amygdala has been awakened, there are going to be alarm bells going off shouting:

“This situation is not safe.  Abort mission!  Run!  Fight!  Freeze!  Give in!”

To help shift the blame dynamic, let’s start with emotional triaging.  We need to acknowledge the pain under the blame.  If someone is blaming you, stop and acknowledge their pain. Speak to their amygdala.  Acknowledge their reality, especially the feelings they might be feeling and what they are wanting instead.

If you are blaming yourself, step back and acknowledge the pain you are feeling in that blame.  What are you feeling?  Sad? Mad? Afraid?  And why?  Just listen to yourself.  You want to be heard.

Listening is an underrated tool in conflict.  Truly listening – in a way that generates an experience of being understood, has the power to melt the hardest hearts.

About the author

Julia Menard

Have you ever wondered why you can be so calm and rational for your clients, but when it comes to your own life, stress can creep in so easily? That’s the quest I set out on when, after 20 years as a mediator, my own marriage disintegrated. I teamed up with a therapist from Portland, and we wrote a book that captures much of what I’ve learned over the last five years about finding a the calm in the chaos. Hold On To Yourself: How to Stay Cool in Hot Conversations is the result. If you are interested in mindfulness, finding the leader within and engaging the gifts in conflict, then check out my website and sign up for my free monthly newsletter at:

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