This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
In your workplace and at home you are inevitably tempted to lay the blame on someone for an action or inaction that is unsatisfactory. Laying blame is easy to do and difficult to avoid, especially if you tend to be judgmental.
In the communication profession we are making judgments all the time; we belong to an extremely judgmental profession because almost everything we do is subjective – we make judgments every day on how best to communicate with selected target audiences to change awareness, attitudes, opinions and behavior. Assigning blame or responsibility can follow when things go wrong.
Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, quotes in her book a sage observation by author Edwin Friedman:
“In any situation, the person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge as the leader, whether designated or not.”
Most of us point the finger. Such fault finding invariably provokes people’s defense mechanisms, resulting in defensive and antagonistic responses. Blaming people behind their backs is even more destructive. In the long run it reflects on the person making the aspersion.
If you are talking about outcomes that should have been better, talk about the reality. And talk about your own feelings. Say:
“This is what’s going on for me. I thought you should know.”
In a personal relationship, you can find suitable words to make the following point:
“This is what our relationship looks like and feels to me. I truly want to know your thoughts, especially if they are different from mine. The success of our relationship depends on our ability to understand each other and be truthful to each other.” You can use this in a close working relationship as well.
Above all, as you describe reality from your perspective, don’t lay blame.
Here’s one small, simple way to avoid laying blame. Remove the word ‘but’ from your vocabulary and substitute the word ‘and.’ Your words will become much more constructive while still getting the message across.
For instance, instead of saying, “I like what you have done here, but…” you can say, “I like what you have done here, and…” It’s much more positive.
For instance, “I know you wanted more time to complete the project, but the deadline is looming.” you can say, “I know you wanted more time to complete the project, and the deadline is looming.”
Likewise, turn “I’d like to help you, but there’s no easy choice right now” into “I’d like to help you, and there’s no easy choice right now.”
‘But’ always cuts across a statement. Multiple realities are competing and you have to choose one or the other. It means, “Sorry, you lose.”
When you use ‘and’ you are saying “this is true and this is true.” Multiple realities are not competing. They just exist. You and I both own a piece of the truth. Let’s work out what to do.
Try checking your own words during the day. Most people are shocked to discover how often they use the word ‘but’ every day.
Over the next 24 hours, practice describing reality accurately, without laying blame, at home and in your workplace. Whenever you are about to say ‘but’ replace it with ‘and.’
You may struggle with this task; that’s where the learning is – in the struggle. Become good at this and your career will gain momentum. Your relationships will improve at work and home.
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