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Recognizing the Distinction Between Blame and Responsibility

Recognizing the Distinction Between Blame and Responsibility

Do you believe that in a perfect world everything would go right every time? At the beginning that sounds pretty nice, especially if it is a radical change from your present circumstances. In our fantasies, things work out, we get the “yes”, and events go exactly as we planned. The problem is that certainty can get boring, so we tinker, we try new things, and we experiment. That’s when it happens:

Sometimes things go wrong.

What you do next is the thing that makes all the difference. Is it your common response to cast about for who messed up? That might seem practical: after all, until you know who made the mistake, you can’t fix it. Do you look for what went wrong? Not just people are involved; there are things and there are processes. Perhaps one of them is faulty. Who was in charge anyway? Maybe it was a failure of leadership or instruction or training—after all, the buck has to stop somewhere.

Before we head down these roads, we need to check one thing: What is our intent in this inquiry? Are we looking for someone to pin it on? Are we looking for something to “fix”? Are we looking for a leader to denounce?

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These are the common motivators. In politics, business, and the social scene, a favorite pastime is finding fault. News television is full of talking heads who are assigning blame everywhere and rallying to replace those at fault. Unfortunately, their replacements become the next targets and the cycle continues.

Only a few are strong enough to accept blame and take responsibility when something goes south. Only a subset of those strong individuals manages to hang on to face their next scrutiny. but there are such persons and we can model ourselves after them. What do they do differently than those who run from the blame?

Before we go further, we need to get some definitions straight. What is blame, what is fault, and what is responsibility?

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  • To be responsible is to be answerable or accountable. It means that we will be measured.
  • To be at fault is to be responsible for a failure or worse, a wrongful act.
  • Finally, to blame is not just to hold responsible but to find fault with.

How to Approach Responsibility

There are ways to approach responsibility that work and ways that don’t. Let’s start with the latter. When our focus is on blame, it is all about finding someone to get. It turns focus away from what went wrong and how to keep it from going wrong again. It is judgmental and vindictive.

Blame is often used to divert attention away from ourselves. After all, we don’t want the blame—who ever wants to be “at fault”? But the blame game shows a lack of understanding of what responsibility fundamentally is. Responsibility cannot be assigned after the fact even though many attempt to do so. Responsibility was always present, even if it was not acknowledged. When you start to realize this, you stop blaming others. You begin focusing on your own role, whether in action or in abdication.

This is a moment of clarity but some folks lose it immediately by making one critical error: they replace blaming others with blaming themselves. This turns into self-recrimination, self-judgment and self-hatred. Blaming yourself is not the same thing as taking responsibility: In fact, it is a way to avoid taking responsibility.

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How so?

The focus of blame is to find fault. Its objective is judgmental to its core. Finding yourself guilty is not going to change anything, fix anything or improve anything. Taking responsibility, on the other hand, has a superior objective—it is all about accountability. It is an assignment, not a verdict. When something is assigned to us, we take care to manage it, protect it, and make it successful, so in circumstances where many go from blame to self-blame, can you see the superior path of focusing on assignment? Whatever happened is now a provider of new and useful information, rather than a distraction from your objectives like blame can be.

There is one other turn of a phrase we must be wary of. That phrase is “to hold responsible”. Yes, it has “responsible” in it, but don’t be fooled: the active word is “hold”. It’s just a stand-in for finding fault. Remember, responsibility just is, and it was, but it cannot be assigned after the fact. A better phrase to embrace is “to accept responsibility”. It is best if you do it in advance. It is painful if you have to do it after the fact but keep in mind that your acceptance didn’t bring your responsibility into existence, it was already present.

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If responsibility is sounding like a serious matter, it is, but it isn’t a circus like blame and faultfinding. Take responsibility mindfully and stay away from blame. If you do, you will find that things calm down and get clearer. It feels better to be responsible than to merely endure the blame.

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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