Focus on Contribution, Not Blame

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Newsletter 89 — February 28, 2023



From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Step 1 of Constructive Confrontation is figuring out what is really going on.  In Newsletter 83 we talked about core conflict issues and conflict overlays, and suggested that disputants (and third parties if there are some) try first to distinguish between these two types of issues, and then address each separately, overlay issues first.

There are at least two other ideas that are useful to consider as one is trying to sort out what is really going on.  One is considering what your own (or your side's own) contribution is to the problem, and the other is determining how much of your conflict with the other side is over facts and how much is over values, and what to do in both cases.  We'll talk about contribution in this newsletter; facts and values in another newsletter coming soon.

Consider Your Own (Side's) Contribution to the Problem

As we've said many times, when people are caught in a highly-escalated, deep-rooted conflict, they tend to simplify the narrative about what is going on to an us-versus-them story in which we are right, and they are wrong. This happens in interpersonal conflicts, as well as organizational, inter-group, even international conflicts.  Let's look at the problem in terms of interpersonal conflicts first, because that is what we are all most familiar with.  

In an interpersonal conflict, one person says “you messed up,” “you forgot,” ”you aren't good enough," smart enough, fast enough, or whatever. And what kind of response does that elicit the other person? It usually elicits denial or defensiveness, guilt or shame, avoidance, insecurity, humiliation, or anger. Instead of making things better, these emotions tend to make things worse. So then the listener denies the attack, withdraws, or attacks back.  Seldom do they address the problem straight on.  

The same thing happens in societal conflicts.  The left says that the right is wrong--they accuse them of being racist, or greedy, or uncaring, or clueless, or whatever. Do people on the right say, "oh, yes, you are right!  I will change?" No, of course not. Rather, they get angry and they support leaders who "own the libs," in other words, do and say things that make liberals furious. Again, this doesn't solve anything; it just drives escalation and polarization higher.  The right does the same thing.  They accuse the left of being self-congratulatory, hateful, anti-Americans. Does the left agree? Again, of course not.  Do they soften their rhetoric? No.  They turn it around and accurse the right of hate.

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen have written a book called Difficult Conversations. This book focuses entirely on interpersonal conflicts and ways to engage in them more constructively. But the ideas presented apply to higher levels of conflict too.

Most important in this context is their distinction between “blame” and what they call “contribution.”

Blame is just what we talked about—it’s judgment. It’s the assertion that the other person (or group, or even country) is wrong. Blame looks backwards at what happened and who was at fault. Contribution, on the other hand, seeks understanding—understanding how both (or all) sides contributed to the situation. It does look backwards, but it looks forwards as well. How did we each contribute to getting into the mess that were in? And what can we do to change the way we interact so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen over again?

The cost of playing the "blame game" that Stone Patton and Heen point out is that understanding gets missed. You never figure out really, what went wrong or how to make things right. You just get caught in an escalating battle of finger pointing.  Focusing on contribution, instead ,allows you to figure out what happened, and then you can problem solve together to figure out how to avoid it in the future. 

In addition, the blame game can hide a bad system. It may be that nobody was at fault, but the communication system or the expectation structure or the organizational structure or something else made it so neither side could do what they needed to do and the problem developed. This can be discovered if you look at contribution. It won’t be discovered if you play the blame game.

Another advantage of focusing on contribution is that it is easier to discuss than blame. In interpersonal conflicts, it's awkward to blame someone for a problem, because you know it will cause them to get defensive and likely make the situation worse. So the tendency is to avoid the conversation altogether. Avoidance is sometimes a good thing, if the topic of the conflict doesn't matter.  But if it is a big deal, avoidance usually leads to a big blow up later on.So for important issues, it isn't a good strategy.  Plus contribution encourages learning and improvement of processes and relationships. Blame does neither of that.

Misconceptions about Focusing on Contribution Instead of Blame

There are three misconceptions about contribution that often encourage people not to use this approach. One is that people think that it only focuses on one side. So if your image is that somebody else did something wrong, then why in the world should you want to focus on what you did wrong to contribute to it?  You know they’re at fault, so why should you take the blame? Well you shouldn’t. You should focus on what both people contributed to the situation. And if you didn’t contribute much, then that should come out. But you should at least consider ways in which you might have contributed to the misunderstanding or different expectations or whatever was the cause the problem.  

The same is true at the societal level. An example:  If your image is that police are entirely to blame for excessive police violence, why shouldn't they be blamed? Why shouldn't we "defund the police" as was widely advocated after the killing of George Floyd?  Well, we all know that the defund the police movement didn't go anywhere (except in a few cities) and when it did change policing, it tended to make it worse, as community hostility, reduced funds and reduced staffing led to more police stress and likely more mistakes.  We know that there are just as many instances of police using excessive force now as there were when George Floyd was killed.  But if we had looked at contribution—what makes an officer's job so hard, what makes them so angry that they lash out with violence or resign or "quiet quit," we might figure out what aspects of the system are encouraging or permitting excessive use of force, and we could begin to address that.  (That has, indeed, been done in some places, but not nearly as much as is needed.)

A second misconception is that contribution ignores or tramples feelings. People tend to get very angry when things go wrong and they tend to want to blame someone else. Avoiding blaming the other does not mean that you have to hide your anger over your frustrations or your fears. Rather, you can express your emotions using what conflict resolvers refer to as “I messages” as opposed to “you messages”. Explain what makes you angry or afraid.  But state it in terms of yourself, not in terms of blaming the other.  When you say that I (or we) get really angry when police use excessive force against unarmed civilians, most police, likely, would agree with you. They, too, get angry because it reflects badly on them and makes their job more difficult.   If you say that all police are bad and should be removed from their jobs—do you think you'll get agreement on that?  

A third misconception about contribution is that it amounts to “blaming the victim.” That’s not true. It removes blame from everyone. Now you can argue, ”why should I remove blame when I know they’re at fault?” Well, even if you know full well they’re at fault, it doesn’t do you any good to point that out. They’re likely not going to agree to that, and they are likely to get defensive, or embarrassed or humiliated and in response, attack you back. So you’re going to end up in an escalated conflict. So even when the other side is mostly or entirely to blame, using the contribution approach as opposed to a blame approach can usually lead to better problem-solving and a better outcome.

This is true for conflicts with your family and your co-workers, and it is true with our political conflicts between left and right. If both sides would be willing to consider how they have contributed to whatever problem is being fought about—be it policing, race, climate or whatever—the likelihood of being heard and being able to work with the other side to develop consensus solutions that actually work goes way up.

You don't want to work with the other side to develop consensus solutions? You want to impose your own solution on the other side instead?  How often does that work? And even when it does work, it frequently leads to anger and resentment, and fires up the other side to work even harder to defeat your side in the next election so they can impose their solutions on you.  If we want to stop riding the pendulum back and forth from solutions that one side hates to solutions the other side hates (and because of the hatred, the solution likely won't work), you need to work with the other side.  Starting by identifying "contribution" instead of "blame" is a good way to do that.

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Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

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