In conflict, people may acknowledge that they have contributed to difficulties, but then explain how the other party is more to blame. Parties usually have opposing arguments and are reluctant to take enough responsibility for their role in the conflict, and thus the total responsibility taken between the two is not enough to resolve it.
The attitude of each is as follows: I am reluctant to offer accommodation because it will indicate that I am more responsible for what has happened, and I’m not. Parties wish to hold each other responsible — usually not fully responsible, but to the point that it satisfies their subjective sense of fairness. Obviously, a stalemate can be the result.
I think parties take a blame orientation for at least three reasons. Firstly, conflict is often fueled by anger, which is acceptable or condoned in many conflict situations. But, anger often leads to blame, and will do so blindly if it is not intentionally tempered. Secondly, people may maintain a blaming stance in various situations to avoid the fear of taking responsibility. Thirdly, the civil side of our justice system operates through assigning blame (responsibility for damages). Hence, to blame is a norm.
In choosing an alternative to blame, how does one achieve a balancing of responsibility between parties that is acceptable? I outline four ways to do so below. These are often applied in some combination.
Firstly, you can use a basic mediator intervention: “If we want to resolve this, I think we are going to have to let go of what happened and focus on how to resolve it.” The suggestion is to look forwards rather than backwards and to focus on a solvable problem, rather than one that is impossible or very difficult to solve. An example of a solvable problem is, “How do we assign costs for the delays and proceed with the project?” as opposed to determining, “Who is responsible for the delays?”
Secondly, the authors of Difficult Conversations offer a way out of tussling over whom is most to blame – who is responsible. They suggest that the events of harm and conflict are usually complex interactional sequences in which both parties have contributed in many ways, some minor and some more significant, to the difficulties. The authors suggest “mapping the contribution system,” which means looking at factors and actions that contributed to the development of the conflict with an eye to preventing future occurrences.
In this process neither party needs to accept full responsibility. Instead, both are involved in accepting responsibility for smaller pieces – one action or factor at a time. Additionally, a fuller understanding of what occurred often develops, which enables parties to accept each other’s perspectives more, and in turn reduces the blaming orientation to the conflict.
Thirdly, restorative justice has a fundamentally simple model for addressing the past. Each party has an uninterrupted opportunity to express what happened from her or his perspective. After all involved have spoken, each discloses the impacts of the harm. Finally, these expressions may suggest what should happen next to address or heal the past. Since blame is directed at prior events, a process that addresses past harm can also reduce blame.
Fourthly, instead of blaming each other for what went wrong, for example in a contractor/homeowner dispute, each party talks about what they are willing to pay or accept for each item on a deficiency list. Deficiency items could be railing, decking, stain, etc. The two figures for each item create a settlement range that you can work at closing one by one.
Getting caught in a blame orientation is a common and understandable conflict dynamic. Four ways to get out of trying to establish why the other party is responsible were introduced above. They are:
Identify a problem you can solve
Map the contribution system
Use the three restorative questions
Assign settlement ranges to your mutual list of damages
Click here to read more on taking greater responsibility in conflict.