Avoid blaming and shaming

Most people react negatively to being blamed or shamed. Learn how to choose language that avoids triggering a negative response. 

Why this matters

How do you react when you’re being blamed for something you did or didn’t do? We may respond with anger, counter-attack, or become defensive. Some may feel ashamed and shut down. Others try to deal with the feeling of never being good enough by constantly trying to please the people around them.

Shame is a painful sense of being inadequate, flawed or unworthy. While shame comes from our own thoughts, it can be triggered when we’re blamed by others for doing or not doing something.

When we refer to shaming someone, we’re talking about saying or doing something that brings up feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness or embarrassment. We can do this through what we say or write, including social media posts. We can also do this by teasing, bullying, shunning, ignoring, isolating, mocking or ridiculing.

Once we’ve triggered the blame or shame response, we’re unlikely to be able to have a productive or supportive conversation. This is true whether or not the person is actually to blame for doing or not doing something. This is because blaming or shaming creates barriers to solutions. 

We can hold people accountable without blaming or shaming them. 

Explore and reflect

“Are you stupid?” “What’s the matter with you?” “Any idiot would know how to do that.” We may ask questions or make comments like this out of frustration. and some people honestly believe these motivate others to do better. Can you say that a question like this motivated you to be a better person? In actuality, we’re much more likely to respond with anger or embarrassment. Neither of these reactions are very helpful in terms of doing something better.

We blame others when we feel they’ve done something that hurts us or someone else. However, when we learn what drives behaviour and how anger is often related to fear, hurt or guilt, we’re able to respond in a helpful and effective way.

Instead of accusing, blaming or shaming, consider redirecting toward something better using some of these approaches:

  • Listen first to understand the other person’s perspective about whatever you believe they’re to blame for.
  • Be careful not to defend any other person, as this is often interpreted as blame.
  • Acknowledge that someone else’s thoughts and feelings about a situation are valid for them, even when you don’t feel the same way. This helps them feel heard and therefore better able to listen. 
    • For example, they say, “Everybody hates me.” You don’t believe this to be true, so you can comment, “It must feel terrible for you to believe that.”
  • When you understand the other person’s perspective and acknowledge their feelings, you can begin a conversation about what needs to change. Instead of blaming them for something, you can discuss it. Here are some helpful questions:
    • What would you do differently next time?
    • What would help you to __________?
    • What got in the way?
    • What challenges did you experience?
    • What solution would make this better for everyone?
    • What would be helpful?
    • What would help you move forward? What would that take?

This takes a level of emotional intelligence so you don’t come off as condescending, patronizing or passive-aggressive. If you want some help in this area, check out Communicating with clarity

References

1. Baynton, M. (2011). Resolving Workplace Issues. Waterdown, Ontario: Self-Published.