Well, I’m delighted to report that my son completed all his exams last week – and is confident that he did well. Recognizing his ability to respond to the challenge, he did everything within his power to make the most of the situation, staying calm and able to think as clearly as possible in a highly pressured situation. So, regardless of what happens next (the results are published in a couple of weeks) the fact remains that he’s done his very best, and it’s over.
Which is why, this week, I decided to expand on the subject of blame and responsibility. There’s a huge difference between thinking in those two opposing terms. There’s also, of course, a huge difference when people choose to use those kinds of behaviour – with a sociopath of course, the blame is always placed on another person. There is always some reason why the job fell through, why their last relationship was so difficult, why they need to borrow money or whatever else may have happened to justify their murky past. And when it all blows up, of course, well who is to blame? Their trusting, loving partner of course… us, and all those like us!
So the way in which they use the power of responsibility and blame, is not healthy – it’s deliberately manipulative. It works so well because mastery in recognizing and harnessing the difference is such a powerful tool. The fact is, though, most of us have no reason to learn these kind of communication skills. Most of us go through life with the basic understanding that if we “do as you would be done by” then all will be well. Which accounts for why, in my opinion, any encounter with a manipulative or abusive person comes as such a shock to the system. And why we automatically ask ourselves the “where did I go wrong?” type of questions.
Communication Is Key
In business, however, particularly in managerial levels, it is very important that people have a more thorough appreciation about the impact their communication can have on others. This, as you know, is the arena where I have chosen to work in my professional career. Communication, self-responsibility, motivation and personal development skills have all been practiced, taught, and practiced again over the years. Indeed, it was living by so many of those skills I have taught that helped me survive and heal from my own situation.
Don’t get me wrong. There have been countless times when all those practiced abilities went out of the window, as yet another boulder crashed in to me. Many times it was all I could do just to make it through to the next minute – let alone to the end of the day. Thoughts of anything more than that were just too much to handle. So in those times I would just let myself be, slowly learning how to be gentle on myself while my shattered emotions began to heal. And that process alone, of course, taught me more lessons; adding, not detracting, from everything I’d learned before. But those are stories for another day.
So, OK then, what am I talking about when I say shifting the blame…? Well, this is based on some of the training I use within groups. This particular subject is the notion that we can consciously choose the way we approach a situation. Specifically, whether we decide to think about a situation in terms of blame, or in terms of responsibility. I am not talking about the kind of ‘blame’ that all of us here will have experienced. Nor am I talking about the kind of ‘responsibility’ that we may well have thought we should have been feeling when faced with those kind of accusations. You know the sort of accusations I mean? The ones that go along the lines of “It’s your fault I did this, you made me do it!” The ones that are then more than likely followed by this kind of thinking on our part “Why did that happen? Where did I go wrong?”
It’s All About Noticing – And Then Choosing
I would imagine that it’s pretty easy for most people to identify the blaming behaviour being demonstrated by the accuser. I wonder whether it’s quite so straight forward, then, to notice how the blame-thinking is then continued by the person who has been accused…?
Let me do my best to explain more clearly what I mean. In workshops, people usually discover that their automatic response reflex to most situations is to ask themselves why it happened. Now ok, I actually believe that’s all well and good in many cases – so long as people are aware of the results their questions will achieve. If they think along the blame-style lines of “What is wrong?” “Why did it happen?” “Whose fault is it?” then they’re directing their brain (and internal resources) to explore the cause – and only the cause. What’s wrong with that? (notice the deliberate blame-style question by the way!) Well, nothing per-say is ‘wrong’… it’s just that by staying in that style of thinking and questioning, they hamper their ability to either find a solution or just to move forward.
OK, so how might the question or thinking behind the question be more useful? What could they ask instead and how might it affect what happens? Put in simple terms, I would typically invite people to think about the problem in terms of future rather than the past. Just by asking a few responsibility-based questions (thoughts that are firmly rooted in the future, in terms of what the person or group would like to happen) people can start to work through the situation, making the most of their ability to respond.
Specifically – questions like “What would I like to achieve?” “How will I know when I’ve achieved it?” “What can I do right now to help?” are all questions that help people to move forward. It opens up possibilities, and increases positivity.
I remember my ex asking me those kind of questions in the early days. He would, of course, use the questions in terms of “we” thereby ensuring that I was actively involved in designing our future – and feeling excited about it at the same time. Clever. Then, of course, when the blame and accusations came, along with the “It’s your fault, this is what you said you wanted!” I went automatically in to typical blame-style thinking –“Why did this happen? What did I do? Where have I gone wrong?” and so the cycle continued. But I didn’t know it was happening. And that’s my point.
Looking back it is now so very clear to me. Yes, I know, I am a trainer in all these things. And yet still I didn’t spot what was happening. I’m sure you can imagine, therefore, just how hard on myself I was when the whole thing came out in the open! As I started looking at myself, and weighing up my situation (yup, it was tough… many times I winced at the dawning realization of yet another example of how I had been manipulated) I actively started to choose my the direction of my thinking and my questions. Regardless of how difficult the particular dilemma might be – varying from irritating to full-blown crisis – I started to train myself to actively ask supportive questions that would move me forward.
In order to do that, I kept my focus on the future. I had to believe that I would get through. Because if I didn’t, well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. That meant that during those darkest times, I consciously chose to keep asking myself “Where am I choosing to go? If I don’t like the way I’m feeling right now, how would I like to feel instead? What can I do right now that helps?”
It wasn’t easy. There are still days now when it isn’t particularly easy. But you know what? Each time I flex my decision-making muscles, and deliberately choose future-based responsibility-style thinking – well, somehow the problems start to lose their grip.
This is powerful stuff. And I know from personal experience that it can be used with great effect against people. I also know that the more we become aware of what has been happening, and start to practice these tools in positive ways, then it lessens the opportunity for others to continue using them to manipulate or negatively influence us. Of course I can’t speak for everyone, but so far as I’m concerned at least, that can only be a good thing, eh? :-)