Business As Usual Pt. 3: "The Blame Game"

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This "business-as-usual" video focuses on the tendency of disputants to define their conflict in terms of the errors of the other side.  "They are at fault," They are evil, or greedy, or stupid or wrong, and am right. Even if that is true, it seldom helps resolve the conflict--it just leads to an escalating conflict spiral and sometimes an intractable conflict.  A better approach is that suggested by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, in their book Difficult Conversations.  They make the distinction between "blame" and "contribution," where blame judges the other side and looks backwards. Contribution looks for understanding and goes both backwards and forwards.  Focusing on contribution thus enables learning and problem solving, while blame causes conflicts to become more escalated and intractable.  

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Things to Think About and Discuss:

After watching or reading the video transcript, consider a conflict in which YOU tend to place blame.  (For example, I often do this myself in the "red-blue divide.")

  1. How can we reframe this conflict in terms of EACH SIDES' contribution (as opposed to playing the blame game)?
  2. What effects would that reframing have on the the relationship between the disputants?  On the conflict system overall?  (For example, on the relationship between liberals and conservatives, on our political discourse, or on the US political system overall?)  

(If you are so inclined, please share your thoughts on reframing US political discourse -- or the blame discourse in other political conflicts in Discussion 4. 

Full Transcript:

Hi! This is Heidi Burgess with the third video in this Business-As-Usual series. This one is called The Blame Game. This one is less of a business-as-usual trap for third partiess and more so for disputants. One thing that we frequently see disputants doing is blaming the other – assuming that they are right at it’s the other side that is entirely wrong, entirely at fault. If you are a mediator, I’m sure you see this a lot.

So 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? Well, it elicits denial or defensiveness, guilt or shame, avoidance, insecurity, humiliation, anger...Instead of making things better, this tends to make things worse. So this diagram shows a circle and that circle keeps on going around and around. It keeps the conflict escalating, and does nothing to help resolve it.

In addition to that happening in interpersonal conflicts, it happens that societal level conflicts as well. I mentioned in an earlier video Peter Coleman’s book The Five Percent. In that book, Coleman describes intractable conflicts this way: “intractability happens when the many different components of the conflict collapse together into one mass, into one very simple “us versus them” story that effectively resists change.” Well that’s basically the same thing!  It’s we or us that are right or good, and “you or them” that are wrong or evil --and we define them as “the other.” So the us-versus-them, right-wrong good-evil, it’s all the same blame game.

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. They make a very important distinction between “blame” and what they call “contribution.”

Blame is just what I talked about—it’s judgment. It’s the assertion that the other person is wrong. Blame looks backwards at what happened and who was at fault. Contribution, on the other hand, looks at understanding-understanding how both 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 they point out are 1) understanding gets missed. You never figure out really, what went wrong. You just blame the other, they defend themselves, or they deny they did anything wrong, and you’re stuck in an escalating spiral. No understanding. Naturally, this hinders problem-solving.

The contribution system allows you to figure out what happened and then you can problem solve to figure out how to avoid it the next time. The blame game doesn’t get you there.

And lastly 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 develops. This can be discovered if you look at contribution. It won’t be discovered if you play the blame game.

So the advantages of the contribution approach are 1: it’s easier to discuss contribution because it can be awkward to discuss blame. You know it will cause defensiveness and make the conflict worse and, so the tendency is to avoid the conversation altogether. Plus contribution encourages learning and improvement of processes and relationships.

Now 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.

Another assumption is that contribution ignores or tramples feelings. People tend to get very angry when things go wrong and they tend to want to blame the other. 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”. This will be familiar to many of you who watch this video, but for those of you who don’t know these terms, I will explain it more in a minute.

Lastly, 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, or they might get defensive, or embarrassed or humiliated –and you’re going to end up in an escalated conflict. So even when the other side is to blame, using the contribution approach as opposed to a blame approach, can usually lead to better problem-solving and a better outcome.

So as promised, the difference between I messages and you messages. A you message is “you were late to pick me up!” It assigns blame and provokes defensiveness. An alternative is “I get nervous when we leave so little time to get to my class”. Now, if you a good relationship with the other person and you use and I message to focus on your feelings, that’s likely to provoke sympathy and a desire to fix the situation-- either this time or the next time.  The I message which essentially says the same thing. The messages are substantively the same, but the emotional impact and the problem-solving potential are very different.

Now I have a corollary to Peter Coleman’s blame game. You may remember his diagram had “me, us good, right,” on the green side, and “you, them, bad, and evil” on the red side. Sometimes we blame ourselves. This really jumped out at me after 9/11, when most of the United States was blaming Al Qaeda. Some liberals, and a number of conflict resolvers, however, were blaming people in the United States – talking about how we brought it on ourselves. Well, that created a lot of resentment and anger, and probably didn’t create a lot of friends of our field. But both sides were getting us into trouble by focusing on blame, and not focusing on contribution.

So I have question for you. Consider a conflict in which you tend to place blame. You can stick with 9/11, if you want to, or I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what we call the “red-blue divide” and the conflict between liberals and conservatives in this country

The tendency that I fall into a lot, I know, is to blame the other side. Both sides do this. Liberals tend to blame conservatives for their problems – conservatives don’t understand what’s going on, their ways to fix any of our problems are ill-conceived or naïve or selfish, they are homophobic or racist or shortsighted. Conservatives play the blame game too. They say that liberals don’t understand the way the social system or the economy works; that their ways to fix our problems are ill-conceived or naïve or selfish. They don’t support fundamental American values, and they too are racist. None of this framing leads to better understanding of each other or the system and it certainly doesn’t lead to problem-solving.

How differently could our political discourse be if we dropped the blame game and instead went to a contribution discussion? What is the contribution of liberals to conservatives’ fear anger and frustration? What is the conservatives’ contribution to liberals’ fear anger and frustration? And if we think in terms of contribution of both sides to our polarized conflicts, what effects might that have on our political discourse and our political system more broadly?

Referenced Resources: 

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. Difficult Conversations.  New York: Penguin. 1999. pp. 58-82. 

Photo Credits:

Slides 2 and 3: Arguing couple: by Hydronmedia. Permission to Re-post by Stardusk and Barbarossa.

Slide 9: S curve; By Alanf777 (Own work) Permission: CC BY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Improvement by NY Photographic - Permission: CC BY-SA 3.0