In this series I’m sharing the Six Shifts leaders can make in order to be more effective in having a high-stakes conversation. Shift 5 involves less focus on looking for someone to blame, and more effort trying to understand what happened.

Consultant Marylin Paul wrote in The Systems Thinker:

“Blame provides an early and artificial solution to a complex problem. It provides a simplistic view of a complex reality: I know what the problem is, and you’re it. Blame thus makes inquiry difficult and reduces the chances of getting to the real root of a problem. Blame also generates fear and destroys trust…The qualities of blame are judgment, anger, fear, punishment, and self-righteousness”.

Dwelling on the past, shutting down creative problem-solving, and fostering distrust are all characteristics of a blame response Alternatively, if you want to turn a bad situation around, consider an approach developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project – inviting a conversation about contributions. Most problems have more than one source. So, bring the relevant person or people to the table to get a fuller picture of what happened and why. This increases the probability of generating a true solution with a high-level of buy-in. It also moves you away from the downward spiral caused by fault-finding.

Shifting from blame to contribution is more than just a semantic shift. Take a look at what else shifts when you reframe the conversation as one inviting contributions.

Blame Conversations
* Ask: “Who did it?”
* Focus on the past
* Oversimplify problems
* Make it personal
* Encourage fear and cover-ups

Contributions Conversations
* Ask: “What’s happening here?”
* Focus on the future
* Explore the true complexity of problems
* Make it systemic
* Foster learning and creativity

Here are some strategies for shifting your next high-stakes conversation from blame to contribution:

Let the anger pass. Anger and frustration make it difficult to see and communicate clearly. Before you raise your concerns about the current situation, give yourself time to cool down.

Give them the benefit of the doubt. Remember that most people are acting rationally from their perspective – doing their best given current knowledge, pressures, structures, and resources.

Use the language of “contribution.” Avoid saying “X caused Y” because it is too limiting to think of something having a single cause.

Ask questions about the system. Focus your inquiry on the current situation, the desired outcomes, and the things that are helping and hindering progress toward those outcomes.

Own your own contributions. Be honest about the ways in which you may have contributed to the current situation. This will encourage others to do the same. Do it with kindness toward yourself.

Image credit: Giulia May on Unsplash

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