The Blame game


How can we best use our freedom to make choices in context of responding to blame?

How can we best use our freedom to make choices in context of responding to blame?

In answer to this question, in Part 1 of this three-part essay, we considered the definition and origin of blame. In the second part of this essay, we will consider our responses to errors made by others. Next month, we will summarize how we can choose our responses when others blame us. (This essay is based on a commentary published in the Nov. 1, 2000, issue of JAVMA titled, "Responding to blame by blamectomy and blamotomy," Vol. 217, pages 1295-1299, Carl A. Osborne).

Depending on the roles we are filling in life, whether it is as a parent or child, a student or teacher, an employee or an employer, or a patient or doctor, we all have the opportunity to receive and give discipline. Discipline can be either beneficial or harmful.

The term discipline is derived from a Latin term "disciple," meaning learner. To be beneficial, discipline must be given with the intent of teaching, and received with the intent of learning. Contrast this educational view of discipline to that of discipline designed to punish others for their perceived errors. What are the likely consequences of this kind of disciplinary action? Often, the effect of discipline designed to punish rather than to teach is like an anvil repelling a striking hammer. It causes anger, is very divisive and may destroy relationships in the work place and at home.

Just cut it out

How can we respond to our tendency to blame others for real or perceived problems?

I recommend a "blamectomy." What is a blamectomy? The Greek suffix —ectomy means to "cut out." A blamectomy symbolizes our determination to try to cut out our human tendency to blame others for their errors when our intent is to shame or vindictively punish them, rather than to constructively teach them.

How can we perform a blamectomy? While the actual procedure used must be adapted to individual circumstances, please consider the following 10 key steps.

1) Feelings are everywhere; therefore, be kind and gentle. We should try to deal with the faults of others as gently as we deal with our own. This would include offering reproof in private (and commendation in public). A mild and gentle demeanor will help protect us from making damaging remarks and errors, and will also help others understand our viewpoint.

2) Try to give others the benefit of the doubt. How can we put this step into practice? When problems occur, we should avoid the impulse to quickly assess blame to others. Why? Instinctive fingerpointing usually results in expenditure of an enormous amount of negative emotional energy. Instead of the knee-jerk "who-dun-it" approach characterized by subjectively judging who was wrong, why not objectively ask what went wrong?

Ask yourself if you have all the facts. Placing fact-finding first rather than fault-finding is a fundamental step toward conflict resolution.

3) Avoid putting others in a corner so that they become defensive. Why? Thoughtless or intolerant blaming almost always causes people to react defensively, even when they know they have made errors. Instead of destructively criticizing and condemning, wouldn't it be better to empathetically listen and understand the other person's position? Empathy will also help us offer advice with a spirit of mildness characterized by being considerate, gentle and helpful. What have you found to be most effective when you are on the receiving end of criticism: gentle persuasion, screaming or finger pointing?

4) When the actions of others harm us, we should resist the desire to retaliate. Acting on feelings of "Just as he did to me, so I am going to do to him," or "I don't get mad, I get even" are negative applications of the Golden Rule. Therefore, they will not induce positive results.

5) When others make mistakes, we should try to focus on the intent of their actions and not just on the difficulties that resulted. Why? It is the intent, rather than the result, that reflects the underlying motive of others' actions.

6) Before blaming another, we should reflect on our intent for doing so. In poetic verse, this step might be expressed as follows:

"When within ourselves, the urge to blame we find, these four questions bring to mind: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it kind?"

7) If someone hurts us, it's natural to hope for an apology. But if an apology is slow to come, what is likely to occur if we continue to dwell on our negative feelings?

If we are determined to wait for an apology that never comes, we may become even more frustrated. In effect, we may be allowing the offending person to control our emotions in a negative way. The cost in terms of lost energy and negative feelings can be enormous.

8) What about our legal rights? Although the answer to this question varies with circumstances, recall that civil law is not synonymous with morality.

Just because we have the legal right to exact reparation from another person does not always mean we have the moral right to do so. If others express sincere sorrow for their improper actions, why not try to forgive and forget? We can forgive in terms of letting go of resentment. By withholding forgiveness, we often are choosing to be unhappy, perhaps even more so than the person we are blaming. We can forget in the sense of not holding the error against another at some future time. The wise person who can forgive and forget saves the expense of anger, the cost of hate, the price of misery and the waste of time.

9) We should avoid damaging others' reputations by not spreading harmful gossip about their perceived error to others. We should not reveal what may hurt another, unless it is of greater harm to someone else to conceal their errors. The Judicial Council of the American Veterinary Medical Association made the following statement about ethical behavior: "Veterinarians should not slander, or injure the professional standing or reputation of other veterinarians..."1

So far, we have considered nine steps that will help us to constructively control our impulse to blame others harmfully. There is a common theme in all nine of these steps. Please review the following summary with the goal of finding it.

1) Be kind and gentle.

2) Get all the facts before assigning blame.

3) Be an empathic listener and be empathic when offering corrective counsel.

4) Overcome the desire to retaliate.

5) Balance the harmful effect of others' errors with the intent of their actions.

6) Consider your intent.

7) If necessary, accept the situation and overcome negative feelings, even without an apology.

8) When circumstances allow, forgive in terms of letting go of resentment, and forget in terms of not holding the error against an individual in the future.

9) Avoid the tendency to spread harmful gossip about others' errors.

10) The common theme in all nine of these steps is the Golden Rule. The 10th step in performing a blamectomy is also a direct application of the Golden Rule. To paraphrase, respond to the errors and mistakes of others as you want them to respond to yours.

Dr. Osborne, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.

Carl A. Osborne

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