People who play the blame game

It can be extremely frustrating when you work with someone who thinks a problem to which they are contributing is simply being caused by someone else.

On the one hand, this is a very human thing to do. It has been suggested that human beings are born with a negativity bias that helps us to identify problems and thus ensure our survival. However this tendency can also be manifested in lots of blaming, complaining and criticising.

The trouble with blaming others is that it tends to provoke a defensive response. It also puts us in a powerless position as, when we are in this place, there is nothing we can do to change the situation as the problem is completely due to someone else.

So how do you help others take responsibility for doing their part to help?

  1. Let them tell their story. If we can allow people to get their story out and demonstrate that we understand how they are seeing things and feeling, this can put them in a better position to consider another perspective. If they can vent their emotions well enough, this can often help them to settle and begin to see things in a more balanced way.
  2. Be human. By this I mean being real, approachable, and not taking a superior stance - that you know what is best for them. Instead you want to convey that we are all human, that we all make mistakes, and we can all do things better. You might even consider whether a brief story about yourself might help. You could speak of a similar situation you were in, something dumb that you did, and what you learned as a result. I don't recommend telling stories about yourself as the hero.

  3. Suggest a trade. If you are on the receiving end of their blaming, you could offer what you are willing to do to help, saying something like, "If I do .., will you do ..." or "How about we both ..." Here the focus is what you will both do differently in the future rather than debating the accuracy of what the other person is saying. Some people gain greater commitment by writing down, with the other person's permission, what each person will do.

  4. Ask questions. After they have felt properly heard, you could ask questions like, "What do you think you both can do to help?" They may well run off a long list as to what you or the other person needs to do. Agree where you can, but then consider asking, "What are you willing to do to also help?" or "What do you imagine the other person would say they would find helpful?" If your timing is right, you may well be able to get away with asking them direct questions about their behaviour. "When you ..., did that make things better or worse?" Here we are wanting to get them exercising the frontal cortex of their brain, the part that helps us to think about our choices.

  5. Offer a different perspective. If they can find a kinder way of seeing the situation, this may well put them in a better position to act more helpfully. You may well have to suggest kinder or more balanced perspectives rather than expecting the person to generate them. If appropriate, you could suggest, "Is there a chance this was a simple communication breakdown / you were both very stressed / you were both inadvertently pushing each other's buttons?" (I suggest one of those options, not all three). Remember that their openness to a different perspective will depend on the degree to which they feel fully heard and the level of respect they have for you.

The great majority of people are capable of self-reflection. However, like any new behaviour, taking responsibility for one's own behaviour takes conscious practice over time. When next speaking with someone playing the blame game, experiment with the above and notice what helps. 


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