Breaking the Cycle of Defensiveness and Blame

Breaking the Cycle of Defensiveness and Blame

Last week I wrote about what happens when we face conflict and we stop seeing each other as people. We stop seeing that our opponents have strengths, flaws, needs, and aspirations — just as we do. Instead, we reduce each other to less than human.

These strategies may make us feel better. But any relief we feel is just temporary. And we’re not working toward resolving the conflict.

The authors of Crucial Conversations explain that when we’re facing conflict, we follow common patterns they call clever stories[1]. Let’s take a moment to listen for and interpret the clever stories we tend to tell ourselves:

  • The Victim Story. Signature phrase: “It’s not my fault.”
  • The Villain Story. Signature phrase: “It’s all YOUR fault.” (A close cousin to the Victim Story. Notice that the emphasis shifts from YOUR innocence to THEIR guilt.)
  • The Helpless Story. Signature phrase: “There’s nothing I can do.”

First off, yes. Very occasionally, these stories are true. Sometimes you really are the victim, there really is a villain, and/or there’s really nothing you can do.

That said, far more frequently, we tell ourselves clever stories—in the privacy of our own minds, or maybe to our peers and supporters—to let ourselves off the hook. That way, we feel justified in not taking action or addressing the issue at hand.

Of course, like many things in human nature, it’s MUCH easier to see these patterns of flawed thinking in other people than it is to see those patterns in ourselves.

So how can you determine if your stories are just excuses? Ask yourself three key questions.

  • If you hear yourself claiming your victimhood, ask yourself: “In what ways am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?”
  • If you hear yourself blaming someone else, ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable and decent person do what this person is doing?”
  • If you’re telling yourself there’s nothing you can do, ask yourself: “What do I really want? And if I really wanted that, what would I do right now?”

YOUR TURN: When you ask yourself these questions, what do you notice? What shifts? And what courageous conversations do you need to pursue?

NEXT WEEK: We’ll look at conflict in action, and a surprising approach to handling criticism.

[1] These ideas and strategies are inspired by and adapted from Crucial Conversations.


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