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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

Dust, Beams and Tin Cups

“Why didn’t confront Carl on his B.S? You knew he was lying, I knew he was lying, everyone else knew he was lying and you just sat there and did nothing. You listened to him like you believed him! What in the world were you thinking? It’s your job to confront people when they are wrong, point out their shortcomings right? That’s what we are paying your for. We all walked away feeling like you were blaming us!!! ”

Thus began a “conversation” with a family member who was present at a meeting that the family had requested I facilitate. They had just returned from an international trip that had apparently turned into chaos. All (their) fingers pointed to Carl as the cause. The following was the essence of my response. I have changed all of the references (including Carl’s identity) to allow for their anonymity. I spoke to the questioner directly and also wrote the following so that everyone in the family could be informed.

Confronting people may be a tool to use if your goal is to make a statement of your beliefs about the other person’s behaviors and your opinion of theirs, in order to ‘set them straight’. If your goal is to improve the quality of the relationship, then confrontation is not a recommended tool. Being confronted will typically breed defensiveness in those of us mere mortals, which is one of the four things (the other three being stonewalling – shutting down and not talking –, contempt and criticism – John Gottman) that destroy relationships. It is an acid drip on the bonds that hold relationships together. I don’t believe that it would be of long-term benefit to have your family members do that to you, or you do that to them. I don’t believe your father, mother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, Uncles, Aunts, Step Mom, Cousin, etc.…. would benefit by having someone, anyone, else point out their faults. Like you know some of yours, they already know some of theirs. Even, and maybe especially under the guise of the infamous “constructive criticism”.

There are a couple of highly researched approaches that supports all this. The research, (and my experience in helping people change their lives over the last 30 years) shows, in essence, the best way to make sure that a person doesn’t change is to confront (pointing out their faults is one way to confront people) them on the behaviors you want them to change. The accused spend a lot of time in defensive mode.

I do not for one minute believe that anyone during that session is or was as innocent and guileless as they projected (or others projected for them) themselves to be. At some level, everyone there secretly already knows that. They know that they had thoughts they didn’t share, truths about the situation they chose to withhold in an attempt to look better and appear less to blame than they actually were.

I also believe that there was no one in that room (or who was talked about in that room) who is as guilty as they were projected or portrayed by others to be.

I believe that everyone is/was of about equal blame and equally innocent.

To the degree that everyone can stay focused on their side of the street, focused on what they did (or didn’t do), striving to be honest with themselves, focused on their own complicity and stay away from the blaming and finger pointing of the others in the situation, will be the degree to which this can be a positive growth experience, both for themselves and for the relationships represented by this event. There is no one in this family that needs anymore practice blaming others. (To build their own case and justify their behaviors). You are all good enough with that skill. There are those in this family who would be better off practicing being honest with themselves, focusing on themselves and owning their own behaviors. Looking, as I asked you to do, at what each of you might have done differently that might have resulted in a different outcome. I’ve learned, the hard way, that as long as I blame others for the situation, I never get to learn the hard lessons about my shadow (hidden) side. The side of me that is selfish, self-serving, capable of hurting others, that manipulates the truth, lies, doesn’t challenge distortions about family members that others might have even if we don’t feel that way, throws others under the bus to get what we want, etc. We all have that shadow side. It’s not just your family that does this. Most everyone does it naturally. Nations and national leaders specialize in it.

We, as human beings, are ‘wired’ to project blame outside of ourselves to help us try to make sense of the world. It takes an incredibly honest and evolved person (or group, or nation) to understand that about 50% of any situation is of their own doing and if they will agree to spend their time focused on that 50%, their lives will be incredibly better. There are exceptions to this general rule. There are those who believe that everything is their fault (looks inward, blames self, takes on full responsibility), when presented with some part of their life that doesn’t work. My work with them is to help them take on only 50%. Taking on more than is yours is just as unproductive as not taking on your fair share. It is far more common to work with people who have great difficulty seeing any of their own contribution to painful situations. And then when they do, will comment that it was in response to what someone else had done. It’s not so hard, typically, to have them be able to identify their part in situations that turn out well.

So that is a really long response to your short question.

I don’t believe in blaming or pointing out faults, because in the long run it doesn’t help or work. It may help the blamer feel better, for a while. It will not do so for anyone in the long run. Most people live their lives blaming others. That is the good thing about that approach, one will run out of life before they run out of people and situations to blame. And if confrontation is the only tool you have to try to negotiate with others how you would like a relationship to be different that is what you will use. But know that it is a blunt sledgehammer you’re using to try to remove the rust from a tin cup. You’re more likely to deform and destroy the cup than you are to get the rust off.

This is ancient wisdom. Very ancient wisdom. In one native population that I worked with if someone stole something from someone else, the thief was punished, and equally punished was the person the item was stolen from. The tribal wisdom was that if the owner had been more aware, they would have seen that this person ‘needed’ the item. Both share the responsibility. Ancient wisdom indeed. There is biblical wisdom about this too, something about noticing the huge beam (of wood) in our own eye before commenting on the speck of sawdust in another.

You may not have realized it at the time but you’ve hired me to teach you different ways of asking for what you want. Ways that are much more likely to be successful.”

Note to readers: If you’ve hung in there this far, here is one of the tools I share with those I work with. In any situation that doesn’t go as you would like, debrief it (as if it was an airplane crash). Focus on at least three things, the more the better, you (rather than the other person) might have done differently that might have resulted in a different outcome. Share that list. Just doing that will help change things gradually. Don’t be surprised that in the beginning, you can’t really think of even one thing, because our brains are wired to find the fault in others first. I don’t know for sure, but maybe it takes more muscles to point our finger at ourselves than it does another person. If you have a pretty high functioning friend or partner, ask them to listen to your list and see if any of the things you listed might have, in their opinion, helped. Please note that they don’t get to add to your list of things they think you should have done. If they are willing to do the same, (come up with their list of things they might have one differently, you have “keeper”. It’s also fun to debrief those times that went stunningly well, in the same way. You’re likely to experience more of them.

Comments please.

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