Typically, someone experiencing loss or threat might be tempted to blame others for their situation. In order to restore balance, an apology or compensation may be expected or even demanded. In Relations in Public, Sociologist Erving Goffman has described a “remedial interchange” that typically involves an apology or excuse. (An expanded version of this process is depicted on the following page. It includes exchanges that fail to restore good relations.)
Blaming is a “You-Message”, an act of self-assertion proclaiming a failure on the part of another. It presumes there is a shared understanding of what is supposed to happen in a particular circumstance or situation. When couched in a formal, legal terms, the one who has made an error may be classified as an “offender” who owes something to the “victim.” This also implies the moral superiority of the person who has been wronged. If the so-called “offender” disagrees, they may not only ignore the legitimate concerns of the complaining party, but make retaliatory accusations of their own.
Each person has a unique history and perspective that is, for them, true. Dr. Thomas Gordon, a student of Carl Roger’s “active listening” approach to therapy, has advocated the use of non-blaming “I-Statements” in order to facilitate the exchange of these personal truths. A compete “I-Statement” would link someone’s emotional attitude with what they had perceived and with what they wanted—it is a true statement about themselves.
- “When I see” (a behavior, action, condition, event)
- “I feel” (afraid, hurt, ashamed, angry, surprised, excited, happy)
- “Because” (of what I value, want, need)
When offering sympathy to a friend in distress, a confidant may use this model to ask, “What did you see? How did you define the situation? How did that make you feel? Why? What did you want to happen?” In a safe setting, responses to these questions ought to be accepted as honest facts about a person’s needs and state of mind. Others might react to the same circumstances differently because their own life experiences and definitions are different. This process of sharing can change perceptions and open paths toward resolution.