Don’t blame me!

calendarMay 25 2020


“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Clive Osborne is an experienced SEND teacher and a qualified conflict resolution practitioner. Here Clive talks about blame, what it is, why we do it, the damage it can cause and how we can put things right.

A headshot of Clive Osborne.
Clive Osborne

What is blame?

I’m talking about holding others responsible for real or imagined problems. And anyone living or working with a child or young person with SEND knows there are unlimited two-way opportunities for blame in their education and care and, indeed, every other aspect of life.

Who does it?

Pretty much everyone starts dishing out blame from childhood. Most of us quickly learn that our new language skills can be used to blame others for our misdeeds – most adults have had to deal with youngsters trying to outdo each other with “who started it first”. With practice, anyone can become expert at passing the buck.

Why do we do it?

There are several psychological theories about the purpose of blame. Many look back to our experiences as children in blaming others. They include ideas around

Control: having to deal with a big problem can leave us feeling powerless, and blaming others gives us a feeling of being in control.

Projection: if we make someone look bad, we can feel better about ourselves.

Explanation: we instinctively seek reasons for problems – and spotlighting other people’s errors helps us establish a cause. Even if we know deep down that we have contributed to the problem, it helps to be able to say it’s someone else’s fault, however illogical that might be. Of course, some situations might actually be nobody’s fault at all. When that happens blame simply establishes a negative round of finger-pointing.

Attack/defence: Often blaming becomes a tit-for-tat exercise in which everyone is simply attacking the others and defending themselves. Then it becomes extremely difficult to make progress or even to get anyone to think positively.

What does it mean?

Blame encourages us to see someone else in terms of their behaviour, not who they are. So it is easy, say, for a disgruntled parent to begin to see a professional with whom they disagree as totally incompetent. From the other perspective, parents and carers can feel the professionals working with their child blame them for how things are. And people who are regularly  blamed can feel weak, vulnerable and generally bad about themselves, become resentful, withdraw from the situation and start concentrating on stopping the blame rather than working for the most positive outcome.   

It can be difficult to tell ourselves that few people are completely incompetent, or that they don’t actually go to work thinking: “I’m really going to mess things up today!”. Many problems in fact arise from the situation or the system that is in place.

How does it look?

Low accountability. Too much blame can mean it’s hard to pin down what is happening and where responsibility properly lies.

Hiding rather than repairing errors. We all mistakes – they should be fixed, not ignored.

Poor outcomes. Excessive blame (from parents/carers towards professionals or vice versa) can mean the original objective is overlooked, or that motivation is so poor people lose the incentive to put themselves out.

How to put it right?

It’s pointless to try to stop our instincts from automatically seeking to hand out blame. We can control how we react and aim to reduce the amount of blame around us.

A good first step is to admit  – to yourself – your own mistakes and take responsibility for them. That can break the cycle of attack and defence that prevents positive progress.

Secondly, when you look at other people, challenge their behaviour, not them personally. Saying to someone “You always let me down”, is simply likely to fuel a problem. Much better is saying something like: “When you don’t phone me as we agree, that makes me feel as though you don’t take me seriously”. Approaching it like this, opens the door to a productive conversation rather than a game of blame ping-pong.

Finally, remember that pinning blame does not help us understand why a problem arose in the first place, and what we can do to stop it happening again.

A headshot of Clive Osborne
Clive Osborne

Clive Osborne is an experienced SEND teacher and a qualified conflict resolution practitioner. His Cobalt32 project combines his expertise as a mediator and conflict coach with his specialism in working with challenged and challenging young people with the aim of supporting people to communicate with the world around them.

Clive’s website Cobalt32 is just getting up and running, keep checking back for updates.

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