By Roicia Banks, MSW
As I was reading "Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement" by Dean Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim, chapter three is entitled, “Blame Direction and Strategic Choice”, I was thinking about conflicts that I am aware of and how I could potentially assist in mediation. Reading about the importance of "blame", challenged me to think about how “blame” plays a role in our society when we are engaged in conflict and the impact it has to who it is assigned. It challenged me to think about blame in a different context; placing blame, self-blame, other blame, and mutual blame all individually invoke some sort of emotion that either promotes the conflict or dissolves it. It also makes people feel different emotions that can potentially make the conflict worse, or it can evoke emotions that you did not have. Meaning, the person who is placing blame could be trying to manipulate a situation by evoking feelings of shame or guilt. I think about the impact of blame which can also involve emotional abuse. When people tend to blame in conflict, it damages a person’s self-esteem and makes it more challenging for that person who is getting blamed to communicate. Blaming also tends to reduce intimacy in relationships, when someone is blamed or constantly blamed, they also lose confidence in their decision-making ability. Additionally, the person who is placing the blame begins to feel empowered, as if they are inferring that they are a great decision-maker, because if it was their decision, they would have done something differently or better.
From a social work perspective, I am thinking about how blame is centered in most relationships. Every person simply wants to know what and where to place their feelings and where they can insert blame. It made me think about the level of importance of assigning responsibility for a fault or wrongdoing, and how that can be extremely toxic. Blaming makes it hard to communicate, and trust, and evokes feelings of guilt and bitterness. I think American culture emphasis this, because of our obsession or need to feel and be “right”. Whether that is blame for a car accident, or when it is actually called an “accident”, blame needs to be assigned to someone so that the repairs for the accident can be billed to that person who was assigned blame. However, we are all required to carry insurance on our vehicles as the law states, so in case there is no blame, you can still get your car fixed under your insurance. If there was less emphasis on assigning blame in every area of our lives, I believe we would have less of a need to assign blame to anyone and simply accept responsibility for what role we played in that situation.
I believe the simple act of placing blame on anyone is counterproductive to conflict resolution. Allowing anyone to assign blame, allows the blamer to avoid taking responsibility for any of their actions or wrongdoing. Instead, I wish we could approach conflict resolution in a way that people are instructed to look at themselves and their actions and how that influenced the outcome. One thing that I have noticed in working with people, is that people who are high in conflict typically do not possess good self-awareness and more than likely, would be reluctant to see how their behavior and actions also influenced the current conflict. In today’s world, I have begun to realize how manipulative tactics are used to control another person’s behavior in order to avoid responsibility, conceal their true intentions, and or cause any doubt or confusion to the other party and those assisting in the mediation process. This is also true in situations like couple’s therapy, where one partner is interested in resolving their conflict and saving their marriage and the other is more interested in appearing as if they have done everything, are perfect, and without fault or responsibility.
People in general need to understand that we are all contributors to any conflict because there is a relationship and an action that produces a cause and an effect. Because there is a relationship between these two people, it implies there is some level of trust, and there are expectations when trust is involved. People continuously mismanage their expectations of themselves and other people. If I trust you to make a decision that is mutually beneficial and you make a decision that is only beneficial to you, I need to take responsibility at some point for asking you to do something that you might not have the capacity to execute. I can self-assess and say, “I messed up” by assigning you a task that perhaps I did not set you up for success to make a well-informed decision on my behalf, or perhaps I was not clear. Maybe I should have asked if there was any need to clarify anything we discussed or if there was any possible confusion. I have to ask myself, “What could I have done better to lead my partner into making a better decision on my behalf?" Mutual blame is, “When the parties feel that both of them stand liable for the conflict, they are likely to take a problem-solving approach” (Pruitt, pp. 55).Mutual blame is not emphasized enough for conflict resolution and I believe can be utilized more often than we know, if we actively practice taking responsibility in the little things, we can learn to take responsibility in the bigger things.
Ego is associated with blame because ego wants us to believe that we are separate or “above others” from this conflict. I once heard that blame is the ego’s love language and it is true! Where there is a person operating in high ego, there is a person asserting blame onto others trying to relieve themselves of the responsibility for their own actions that also contributed to the conflict. I believe the American culture contributes to assigning one person the blame and consequences rather than two people. This can be seen easily in car accidents and who is going to pay for damages when both parties are legally required to carry insurance. We can also see it in some divorce cases during mediation where one party complains about something such as, “A lack of intimacy”. As a social worker and mediator, I know human behavior and I try to ask questions like, “When there was intimacy, how did you show up? How was it received? Did you show up as your best self? Was intimacy reciprocated? Did you share your expectations around intimacy? Did you cultivate an environment where intimacy was welcomed and reciprocated in your home?” What I am doing at this point is exposing their own expectations or shortcomings that might not have ever been communicated or identified. This helps soften the ego when we can see how our own actions contributed to the conflict. When we take out the urge to blame each other and focus on resolving conflict, we can each take responsibility for our shortcomings that have led to this conflict and move toward resolution. I believe when we accept mutual blame and we take responsibility, we can achieve conflict resolution faster and both can be seen as a win-win.
Pruitt, Dean G., Kim, Sung Hee., Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement Third Edition,