Family Communication Part III: The Blame Game

The issue of who's at fault can stop attempts at family problem solving dead.

Posted Feb 04, 2013

In Part I, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and what usually happens when they try. I discussed the most common avoidance strategy — merely changing the subject (strategy #1)—as well as suggesting effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track.  In Part 2, I discussed the avoidance strategies of nitpicking (#2) and accusations of over-generalizing (#3). 

The subject of today’s post is the avoidance of attempts to change the subject by getting into the blame game, and taking a shifting stance as to who exactly is to blame for a given family problem (#4).

The goal of metacommunication is effective and empathic problem solving. I will once again discuss counterstrategies that are often effective in getting past blame shifting. As with all counter-strategies, maintaining empathy for the Other and persistence are key.

I again repeat the strong caution: Please be advised that sticking to the counterstrategies that I describe may be extremely difficult, so the services of a therapist who knows about these patterns are often necessary. For families in which violence and/or shattering invalidation of people who speak up is common, a therapist who can coach you in effectively employing the techniques is essential. Also, the advice in my posts is designed for adults dealing with other adults. It is not meant for metacommunciation with children and teens.

                                                   Strategy #4: Blame Shifting

A favorite maneuver that is used by many families members to scuttle metacommunication is the counter-accusation, in which someone else is blamed for the problem under discussion or another problem. The counter-accusation may be aimed at the metacommunicator, or it may be aimed at a third party.  

For metacommuncation to succeed, it is best for people to take the position that there are NO villains in the family drama. However, family members, including the metacommunicator, may have done very bad things, and that fact cannot be ignored without the ignorer sounding like a liar or an idiot.   

In general, blame is toxic to metacommunication, and leads to fight, flight, or freeze reactions in others - none of which is productive.  No one likes to or needs to eat crow, as it does not taste like chicken.  One needs to keep one's eye on the final and most important goal - to begin the process of changing problematic patterns in future interactions.

Individuals attempting to discuss a mutual problem with a family member without placing blame on anyone must nonetheless bring up the Other's troublesome behavior within the family system. Even when individuals do their best not to blame anyone, the Other may nonetheless attempt to quiet them by acting as if they were behaving in a blaming manner. 

Let's take the case in which the Other (O) becomes indignant and starts placing the blame for the problem on the Metacommunicator (M). In order to get M to become especially angry, O may magnify and exaggerate M's contribution to the problem or imply that M is entirely at fault.