When there is an issue to resolve, there is a different approach than deciding who is right and who is at fault. Think of it in terms of circular causality.
In other words, how do your actions influence people? And, how does the action of others influence you?
Scenario #1: Imagine your child runs and clips the leg of a table, sending a glass of water flying. How do you respond? Or, suppose a fast moving office-mate clips your arm and throws your papers flying—what do you do?
If you yell and panic, then they will likely yell and panic. You will put them in a defensive mode. The glass has been spilled; the papers have flown. The damage is done. Yelling will not change that nor will it teach the desired lesson.
Scenario #2: Alternatively, if you calmly address the situation and ask for help with the cleanup, they will likely engage you with the same energy.
The calm and thoughtful response will influence people to respond thoughtfully and calmly as well. You leave the blame cycle and, instead, engender a positive response to an awkward situation.
When you perceive causality as circular, you frequently perceive much more than standard cause and effect analysis. Since your actions are influential—and you recognize that—you have an opportunity to anticipate and shape the desired response.
This concept applies to friends, family and co-workers, and it can be used to eliminate or encourage positive behavior in others.
Think about a home-cooked meal. A thoughtfully prepared meal at the end of a long day can do wonders for your mood. In other words, you can say that the meal caused you to be happy.
Alternatively, you can say that the meal made you feel happy and grateful, and, in turn, you were loving, responsive and appreciative toward whomever person prepared it.
Let’s say your wife cooked the meal. This act changed your behavior. How you react might affect your spouse’s desire to continue cooking. This cycle could ensure more home cooked meals in the future (if that’s what you want).
You can engage in the cycle on a much smaller scale. Let’s say your spouse unloads the dishwasher. Suppose you ignore his desire for recognition—you maintain that he is “just doing his share” —thereby ensuring that his participation in household chores will not increase.
Or, you can express gratitude, no matter your real feeling, and actively empower your husband to engage in household chores more often.
If you are a manager (or hold any leadership position), you have significant influence over others. When faced with an underperforming team member, you have many options. Choosing criticism and shame may motivate some. Others may respond to positive reinforcement and encouragement. Knowing what tools you have and where to use them can help you generate the most beneficial response.
Likewise for employees and subordinates. You can defend and argue, embedding yourself in the chain of conflict. Or, you can receive the criticism with grace and work through an appropriate response once the emotions have settled.
Your response, regardless of the specifics, influences the way in which your boss will engage you in the future.
Beyond not crying over spilled milk, this cycle translates to your home life as well. Your 13-year-old son doesn’t want to do his homework. You encourage him relentlessly most of the evening. In his mind, your pestering prevents him from doing his work. In your mind, Minecraft just gets in the way.
You spent countless days limiting his computer access. He spent countless days falsely promising finished homework in order to regain use of his computer.
This cycle needs interrupting. First, recognize that this is no one’s fault—you are each stuck exerting influence in the wrong direction.
There are always at least two players in every interaction. Each one generates influence, consciously or not. Recognizing the value of your influence keeps you from getting stuck in a blame cycle.
It can be using Minecraft as a reward not a punishment. It can be to not pester at all and let your son risk a terrible grade, or possibly rising beyond your expectations.
Sometimes it takes a lot of self-control to move past blame and recognize your role.
Think of it this way: Blame is unilateral and solitary. It may make you feel exonerated, or possibly shamed, and it does nothing for the relationship.
If the relationship matters to you at all, then think in terms of circles. This expands the possibilities in your interactions and supports your wellbeing in the long run.
And most importantly, it takes practice. If it takes a while to shift to this way of thinking, go easy on yourself. It’s not your fault!
Carrie is a therapist and licensed attorney in Connecticut with a specialization in divorce mediation and parenting plans. She also runs CT Relational Therapy, LLC and holds a Master's Degree from Fairfield University.
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