A Better Way to be in Conflict: Blame Vs. Contribution


Conflict can be…well…difficult. Perhaps you can associate with the idea that our best selves do not always show up for the occasion. Before we know it, we’re drowning in conflict and our emotional intelligence becomes emotionally dense while a fire-breathing dragon replaces our deep breathing for calmness. I mean…unless I’m the only one…?

Yep, I didn’t think so.

We can, quite quickly, get lost in the fog of win/lose, victor/victim, or endless battles of blame. Just for the fun of it – try to imagine the last time someone blamed you for something – how’d that go? Generally, our first response is to defend ourselves. And in our defense, we begin to fight fire with fire, attempting to overcome blame with blame. Although this cycle may feel good for a micro-second, it quickly becomes clear, there are no winners – it’s just a tennis match of blame, defend, blame, defend, blame…you get the picture, you know the game.

Here are a few other reasons the blame game is sure to achieve no winners and no resolution.

  1. Blame is a very close cousin of shame – a powerful motivator of isolation, loss, and shut down.
  2. Blame attempts to simplify fairly complex situations. If we are truly honest, how often is a conflict the result of one single person’s action? More often, we are, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, playing a much larger role than we would like to admit.
  3. Blame is an easy target and serves to sidetracks us from the real issues. The important conversations aren’t had and so the real problems persist.

In short, the blame game is just that – a game. And like most games, it revolves around competition and winning. And as the world of sports has demonstrated many times – we are willing to take some pretty cheap shots to win. So what if we shifted this paradigm a bit? What if we (being the two people in conflict) joined the same team – worked together, contributed together, and strategized together to overcome the problem? It’s us against the issue rather than me against you.

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A conversation that uses the contribution system feels very different than the blame game and it has very different outcomes. Both parties come to the table to find a solution rather than to dissect and review (and review, and review, and review) the problem. The energy of the discussion is in the present moment and in the future. Both parties seek to understand, to gain insight, and to learn how to create a very different scenario next time the issue arises.

talking 2Contribution, although clearly a much better way to approach conflict, can feel amazingly challenging. It may feel much easier to simply go back to the blame game. Why? Because our brains have probably been playing the blame game for a very long time. We witnessed it growing up, practiced it on our siblings and in the school playground, mastered it in middle school and high school, and with honors, carried it into our adult lives – both personally and professionally. Moving from blame to contribution takes a steady effort to re-train the brain. It takes focus, intention, and practice (and then more practice, followed up by more practice).

Prepare for these potentially difficult conversations. Here are a few ideas to help your contribution brain training:

  1. Breathe. Your breath is a powerful tool for your brain. Keeping your breath slow, deep, and steady aids you in staying in your thinking brain, rather than your reacting brain. Your thinking brain is where contribution takes place – it is impossible to listen, understand, consider solutions, and contribute when you are in your reacting brain. If you feel yourself begin to move into blame and shame, ask for a break – and then refocus on your breath.
  2. Pay very close attention to your language. Speak slowly and intentionally – remember you are creating new brain pathways and if you go on autopilot, blame will run the show.
    Blame language sounds a lot like this:
    “You did this to me.”
    “I had absolutely nothing to do with this.”
    “You always say that and it sounds so stupid.”
    “I’m fine. I’m used to this kind of thing from you.”
    Contribution sounds more like this:
    “I know we both have a part to play in this.”
    “Can you help me to understand what you thought I was doing?”
    “What was your understanding of the situation?”
    “What I hear you saying is…”
    “You still sound angry, what am I missing?”
  3. Forgive yourself. You will not get it 100% right, 100% of the time. If you’re doing this with a spouse or family member, talk about the changes in language and intention. Invite your partner to join you in this new way of approaching conflict; Agree to work through the process together, to support each other in changing from blame to contribution. Identify how you will deal with blame when it begins to enter the conversation. In other words, agree to be on the same team and work towards the same goal – resolution.
  4. Practice contribution thinking – not just contribution language. If we are thinking blaming thoughts, it will be impossible to speak contribution language authentically. We don’t need to wait for a conflict to arise to begin our brain training – begin right now with your thoughts. Notice how often blame is present in your thoughts. Begin to play with contribution ideas and language inside your head.

Remember, our brains are hardwired for connection. When we work from the context of relationship, we are much more likely to feel safe. When we feel safe we are more likely to be open, to think, to understand, and to resolve. And the opposite is true when we don’t feel safe; we work from a place of reaction and defensiveness. We are simply unable to contribute when we are out to defeat.

tiffanyTiffany Grimes is Founder and Lead Certified Professional Coach with Evolutionary Consulting.  Grimes works with individual, groups, and organization on their path to betterment. Her work as a coach operates from a solution-focused platform and brings together her wisdom and experience in brain science, human behavior, organizational leadership, personal development, and emotional intelligence.