If someone says or does something that hurts us it’s easy to react with blame. It usually starts with the word ‘you’ and is often delivered in an angry voice:
You’re causing me to..
You’re making me…
It’s unfair to blame anyone else for our feelings because only we are responsible for our reactions to situations. Blame is damaging to others too. So what alternatives do we have? Should we just pretend we’re fine?
Vulnerability is sharing how you feel without making the other person responsible:
When you say XXX, I feel XXX because…
It hurt my feelings when…
I feel angry
It might seem a subtle difference but blame is an attack that pushes others away whereas vulnerability is being real enough to trust a person with how something effects you without holding them responsible. It gives them a chance to explain, it gives them a chance to understand, it gives space for misunderstanding to be uncovered on both sides, it gives them an opportunity to say how they feel and it ultimately brings people closer together.
I came across a brilliant video that illustrates the difference between blame and vulnerability, it’s a short talk by shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown. She says we’re all blamers but blame sabotages relationships. I love this video because it’s insightful but also really entertaining:
I’ve been thinking about the other options we have. Blaming others is easy, vulnerability is hard and scary. But what else do people do?
Overlook an Offense
Research shows that anything that causes a strong reaction is 70% your past and 30% the current situation. So you’ve been reminded subconsciously of something that happened before, it hurts because it’s an old wound. This new situation and new person didn’t inflict the level of pain you’re feeling. If you start to notice patterns, perhaps you could talk to a friend you trust or get professional help from a counselor?
On the other hand, research also shows successful couples have a lower threshold for talking about issues. By talking about small things that bother them when they’re small, they don’t become big issues further down the line. So perhaps it’s about being aware of your past if a reaction seems disproportionate to a situation and being willing to be honest and real with the people you’re close to.
I expect my closest friends to tell me if I’m doing something that bothers them.
Talk about Them
This is an easy option and classic workplace scenario. Someone disagrees with a decision or is offended by a comment but instead of talking to the person about it, they moan to everyone else. It’s unfair because the person may have no clue you’re upset with them and they may not have meant to offend at all. The whole thing could be a misunderstanding and they’re not there to defend themselves. Based on the principle that most people are trying to do their best, it probably wasn’t intended to hurt you.
Go to Them: Vulnerability
I find this scary but I agree with Brene, it’s the right thing to do if you care. If it’s a small thing I’ll ask a question on the spot “did you mean..?” to resolve the issue there and then. But if it’s upset me I’ll wait a bit in case I’m reacting to something disproportionately and I don’t want to say something I regret in anger or blame someone and hurt them.
I try to write down what I want to say and get it into three bullet points so I won’t bore someone or confuse them with irrelevant details. I also try to write some positives about the person too. That process helps me feel better and I’m in a much better place to speak to them if I still feel it’s an issue that will come up again if it’s not resolved.
Writing it down also helps me not to blame when I speak because I can phrase things the way I want to.
A wee tip I learned on a course recently is if you want someone to do something for you in response, ask them to meet a need rather than tell them how they’ve not met it. It’s much easier for people to respond to a request.
Try and do it in person. I’ve not always got this right, I’ve maybe texted because I don’t think it’s a big deal but it’s easy to misread tone in texts and the other person can’t ask questions and I’ve offended or been offended.
Think about timing, they might be busy, wait until they’re ready.
Assume the best.” I’m sure you wouldn’t mean this..” might be a good start.
Get help from someone you trust if you’re unsure or just need help in working out what you’re thinking and what the issue is. They will be able to offer an alternative perspective and might help with your blind spots. But still go to the person because otherwise you’re just doing the ‘talk about them’ thing above.
Having one of these conversations doesn’t usually take more than 5 minutes. It’s scary but loving so I do it even though I’m uncomfortable. I’ll even say “I find these conversations a bit difficult so bear with me.” I don’t have them very often and I usually treat myself to something afterwards too – a mini celebration. The good thing is, most of the time I’ve been amazed at how well people respond to you trusting them enough to be vulnerable like this. And the issue and other issues get resolved in the process. Some examples of feedback:
I really appreciate the directness of this conversation – this is brilliant! (Male colleague)
Thanks for loving me enough to have this conversation, most people wouldn’t! (Female friend)
In one situation I spoke to a manager because everyone was feeling that their work wasn’t good enough because he only said what was wrong. After the chat he got cake for the team to let them know how much he appreciated their hard work. I didn’t speak on behalf of others, just myself but his reaction resulted in everyone being happy. We also became much better friends afterwards too. Plus I got to eat cake! I didn’t request cake- he just did that!
Lastly, not everyone will be able to receive a conversation like this due to a number of factors but a major one of those is their insecurity. They may start shouting, attacking or blaming you. They may agree to speak but make it clear how unwilling they are to hear you and how much you’re bothering them before you even get to the conversation. They’re hurt or scared but haven’t learnt how to be vulnerable. You’re better off leaving it – some people defend any perceived threat through attack. If you’re being blamed, attacked or rejected emotionally when you’re trying to be vulnerable, it’s like being kicked when you’re already down – it’s hurtful and damaging to who you are. Retreat and learn who safe people are and keep yourself safe too. Good luck!