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Communication and Conflict Newsletter, Issue #008, - Taking a No-blame approach
September 14, 2008

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Newsletter - A No-blame Approach

Taking a No-blame approach to difficult situations
(....or, instead of focusing on 'Who did it?' the focus is on 'How did it happen?' )

Alan Sharland

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Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Newsletter no.8

The No-blame approach has often been criticised as being a way of simply not wanting to make anyone accountable for something that has happened. And yet, that is not the case in what I understand the No-blame approach to be about.

The significant word is 'blame'. Blame carries with it a lot of negative connotation for many people, including myself, and so it is frequently something that people do not want to have associated with themselves.

So let me try to outline what I see as the features of a No-blame approach to a difficulty or conflict to identify why I believe it is so important in many situations to adopt it and why in so many others where it is not practiced it provides an obstacle to resolution and often escalates a conflict situation:

The No-blame approach:

  • Acknowledges that mistakes or misunderstandings will always happen and sees them as learning opportunities
  • Focuses on what the details of the mistake or misunderstanding were in order to gain more clarity, again with a view to them being a learning opportunity
  • Places a priority on finding out 'What happened?' or 'How did it happen?' rather than 'Who did it?'. 'Who did it?' might only be asked in order to help to understand the first two questions.

The consequences of not using a No-blame approach are very unfortunate. I have described an example on the website where the 'blame culture' commonly found in the UK's National Health Service caused a simple misunderstanding between a dentist and one of his patients to escalate way beyond what was necessary and how the No-blame approach of mediation enabled them to resolve it in about 1 hour!

Features of situations that occur within a 'blame culture' include the following:

The Battle I must not lose...

A competitive approach to any difficulty occurs where people deny that their actions may have influenced a situation and 'point the finger' at others. Where it is clear their actions did contribute to a difficulty they tend to say they were 'forced' in some way to do it by others. All of this is done to avoid the condemnation and isolation that is associated with being 'blamed'. If someone is able to trust that a No-blame approach is being used they are much more at ease about identifying where they could have done something differently or being open to hearing that another person found it upsetting, because they are not being accused of doing something 'wrong'.

It wasn't me...

When children are asked to stop doing something that might lead to a problem or accident, they will, if they have learned to fear being 'blamed', respond saying 'It wasn't me', even if the person speaking to them has not asked 'Who did it?' or has just made a request to them to stop doing something. Of course, entirely similar responses occur with adults who fear a 'blame' culture when some problem has arisen or a conflict has occurred.

Quotation Corner:
Recently I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him.

Thomas J.Watson, founder of IBM

When a problem occurs and the blame approach is used, there is an unwillingness by those involved to question their approach to things. If they are not found to be actually 'in the wrong' according to any rules or legislation that apply, there is a likelihood that a practice that clearly does not work will continue to be in place, because to change would be seen as 'admitting it was wrong'. Whether it works or is effective or not becomes irrelevant and secondary to being proved 'innocent' or 'not to blame' in a blame environment. This is not a criticism of those who act that way. When the discussions are about nothing else than 'who is to blame' it is difficult to do otherwise. However, when we realise this is what is happening and how ineffective it is, and what is being said and done to maintain the blame approach, it becomes much easier to change the approach.

The Principles of Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution include the following:

That it is ok to make mistakes - it is inevitable that we will and we can treat them as opportunities for learning, not to condemn others.

That we challenge the behaviour and not the person - not 'Jonah you are racist' but 'Jonah, when you said that I felt it was a racist statement so can we talk about it?'

All conflicts, problems and difficult situations can lead to learning - if we let them and if we practice genuine enquiry into what lies behind them rather than seek to simply label others as 'guilty'.

Some excellent books that describe the use of the No-blame approach in schools, but which can inform its use in other settings are:
Bullying: A Complete Guide to the Support Group Method (Lucky Duck Books)
Crying for Help: The No Blame Approach to Bullying (Lucky Duck Books)

Get your real life example of the blame approach from Tescos....

CAOTICA the CAOS Conflict Management Blog

Interestingly, on the eve of my sending out this Newsletter I had a little 'real example' of a manifestation of the blame approach when I did my shopping at my local Tescos. I had taken a voucher with me to get extra loyalty points when I bought a certain brand of tea but I forgot to give it to the cashier when I paid, only realising just as he gave me my receipt. When I explained my mistake he said I could get the points put on my card at Customer Services.

So, on my way out I stopped at Customer Services. When I explained what had happened the lady at the desk said: "Well you see that is your fault and not our fault!". A bit puzzled I said to her: "I wasn't looking at whose fault it was, the cashier said you'd be able to put the points on for me." She then said: "We only usually do it when the cashier has missed the voucher and forgotten to scan it. Give me the voucher."

"What a Star you are!" I said, not without a little sarcasm I have to be honest, though thankfully she didn't detect it. "Thank you", she smiled, patting herself on the back. And so, after a scan and a 'peep' of my voucher and the same for my tea packet I was on my way with 100 extra loyalty points on my card.

But it was interesting that her immediate response was to allocate blame rather than simply take my voucher and scan it. And when I sidestepped the point she made about whose 'fault' it was, she simply got on with the task in hand. I wonder how often her encounters with customers descend into a blaming match? I wonder how stressful she finds that?

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Oh Wow This Changes Everything is a great site with an enormous number of links to articles about different aspects of effective communication and conflict resolution. Definitely worth a could be there for hours! helps people, like yourself, create change in their life and business. They share fun stress management strategies and personal development articles.

New This site is sooo full of great links and resources relating to Co-operative Communication skills - I would very much recommend it.
Learning Supersite is a fascinating site dedicated to the development of informal learning. "A new approach to learning, the Learning Supersite is a venue that provides personal learning community, but with state-of-the-art Web technologies."

Transforming Conflict is an excellent organisation which works with young people, and adults, in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.

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