How to Respond to Blame

“You screwed up.”

“Where were you? You didn’t do what you were supposed to do!”

“This is your fault. I need you to take responsibility.”

These are the types of phrases we hear when we get blamed for something. Getting blamed can feel very unpleasant. The initial shock you feel makes it hard to know how to respond. You probably know that when you get blamed, reacting quickly with a lot of oomph doesn’t solve anything, and just makes matters worse.

Let’s look at some common reactions to blame:

Walking Away.

When you feel attacked, you get triggered. Getting out of there may be your natural reaction. Maybe getting some space will help if you’re about to say something defensive or snarky. However, just walking away enrages an accuser and makes you look guilty.

Giving In.

You’re right. I did that. I’m really sorry. I won’t do it again. How can I help make this up to you?  This may seem like a good idea, because these expressions of remorse would probably satisfy the accuser–if they were true. You don’t want to say them unless they are true. Taking the blame for something we didn’t do, to get an accuser off our back, perpetuates an untruth.

Counter-Blaming.

Blaming an accuser is guaranteed to escalate into a fight. Even if your accuser has done something wrong, the time to bring that up is not when they are blaming you.

Defending Yourself.

It’s not my fault… I didn’t intend to… That’s not what happened.., etc. Defending yourself is telling an accuser that they’re wrong, and that they have no basis for feeling the way they do. Refusing to listen to their feelings will prevent the situation from getting resolved. In the long run, defensiveness makes matters worse.

Explaining Calmly and Rationally.

This is a kinder, gentler form of defending yourself. Calm rationality may keep things from escalating, but it misses something big: blame is not a search for truth; it is not motivated by a desire to hold people accountable; it is, as Brené Brown says, a discharge of anger, discomfort, and pain. A calm, rational response brushes off the emotions of an accuser. It feels condescending to them. It’s likely to make them angrier, because you aren’t addressing their emotional plea.

All these reactions have something in common: they’re quick attempts to cope with unpleasant emotions without dealing with the emotions directly. Let’s consider some ways we can respond to an accuser that keeps their emotions, and ours, in the foreground.

Listen.

Listening doesn’t come naturally when you’re under attack! You get triggered. Your heart beats faster. You may feel an impulse to respond quickly. Take a deep breath; deep breathing is the first step to de-escalate your emotions. Remind yourself that a hasty response is not the best. Let them talk. Watching and listening quietly, like Sheriff Walt Longmire, shows a person respect, and helps them deescalate. Listening is not agreeing. Take another deep breath. That will enable you to get more information and understand the situation better.

Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt.

Is it possible that this person is exhausted or just having a bad day? Finding a little empathy inside yourself for an accuser will help you to take things less personally. Maybe this isn’t about you at all. Or maybe this person is trying to bring you an important message and they went about it all wrong. Is there anything true in what they said that would be valuable for you to work on?

Speak to Their Emotion.

Remember that blame is a discharge of emotion. An accuser feels relief when you acknowledge or guess how they’re feeling. Examples: You’re upset about this. This is a big deal to you. Are you disappointed? Sounds like you felt ignored.

Ask to Share.

If you want to tell your side of the story, ask permission first. Would you like more information?

Set a Boundary.

Blame is not appropriate. But it’s not your job to correct this person’s behavior. It is appropriate to tell them the impact of their tone on you: It’s hard to respond to you when you talk to me that way. You can follow that with a request: Instead of talking about who’s at fault, can you tell me about what concerns you? What do you need?

Ask for Some Time.

Time will enable you both to take some deep breaths, soothe your emotions, and understand the situation. I’d be happy to talk about this at a better time. Can we plan to talk about this when the time is right? Or, How about in a half hour?

These are some ingredients of an effective response to blame. Maybe you can think of others. Remember that even the ‘perfect’ response won’t necessarily satisfy someone who’s angry. All you can do is try your best to take care of your side of the street. By resisting the initial impulse to withdraw, give in, or defend, you can offer a response that takes care of yourself, shows consideration to your accuser, and gets to the bottom of what is going on.

 

Article Written By: Alan Rutherford, MA