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Replacing the “Blame Game” with a “New Game Plan”

Dispute Settlement Counsel by Michael Zeytoonian

Two recent Boston Globe stories (2 21 13) stood out for their common theme – that of laying blame and finding fault. One article entitled “Not Without Blame” apportioned blame for what happened to the 2012 Red Sox. The other story was about the latest fiscal battle between House Republicans and President Obama. The article discussed the need to lay blame on the other side for the looming “sequester”, a default measure making automatic spending cuts if the powers that be in Washington, D.C. can’t come up with mutually acceptable solutions.

“Party strategists have advised Republican members to aggressively blame the president for the creation of the automatic cuts and the failure to stop them,” the article reported. The sports article was preoccupied with determining Red Sox GM Ben Cherington’s degree of fault. “The blame pie is big and heavy,” the story began. And then it just went downhill from there. Very little if any of either article offered solutions or gave readers any insights for improving either the Red Sox or the partisan political logjam that has come to be Washington, D.C.

The average Red Sox fan knows far more than he or she needs to know about what went wrong with the Red Sox last year. Most of us have also had our fill of hearing from politicians that the other side is wrong. We hear precious little about what they are doing to solve the problem, instead of telling us what they won’t do and that the other guys are wrong.

I’d like to believe that most people are more interested in what is being done to make things run better, be it in government or sports teams. Success stories in business, sports or other endeavors talk about what the successful people did and how they did it. They are loaded with tales of people working together, dissecting problems, learning from mistakes, collaborating and building on each other’s ideas.

Still, people are more preoccupied with finding fault than solving problems. We get a result other than the one we had hoped for, whether it’s a workplace issue, a medical procedure or a family dynamic and immediately, the knee jerk reaction is to look to blame and determine who is liable. Most folks are driven more by a desire to make someone pay – who can we sue – than to fix the problem.

If sportswriters write articles that focus more on the past than the here and now or the future, and write about who was to blame and to what degree, it’s probably because they think their audience wants to know about that more than how someone is addressing this problem. If political “strategists” are advising empty hearted politicians to focus on blaming the other side, they must believe that this is what wins people over. The conversations at the water fountain parrot this same superficial song. Let’s blame the Democrats for not cutting spending. Let’s blame the Republicans for not doing anything constructive. Let’s blame Bush, Clinton, Reagan, FDR, the Taliban, the big banks, Wall Street, Bobby Valentine, Carl Crawford, Larry Lucchino!

There is not much gained by laying blame. The preoccupation with finding fault is a different exercise than figuring out what went wrong in order to solve the problem. There are uplifting stories that couch apparent failure in a productive light. I was reading a meditation recently in Tony Dungy’s book, Uncommon Life Daily Challenge, about how Thomas Edison was confident he had not failed before he finally invented the light bulb, but that he had found ten thousand ways not to make a light bulb. Edison was not interested in blaming anyone for his failures, including himself. He was figuring out how not to do things the next time. How refreshing – and game changing – is that?

In the work of dispute resolution, this is a key distinction. The focus of litigation is on the past and establishing liability, even when there may not have been anyone to blame for what was “an accident” or “an honest mistake”. It is largely an endeavor of pointing a finger at some defendant(s) and “beating” them, rather than a quest to be in the here and now, solve the problem,and look and move forward. There’s a huge difference between figuring out how to make a light bulb work and having a bucket of money damages that you can only count by the light of a kerosene lantern!

Most people agree that it make more sense to utilize dispute resolution processes that are focused on solving problems, getting closure and moving forward than those that look backward and determine fault. But those same people will still be driven by the emotional pull of laying blame, even when their rational side says otherwise.

I suppose we could blame them for that. Or maybe, just maybe, we can engage them in the pursuit of making an emotional and strategic shift in the way we respond to things that go wrong. There’s this organization out there called the IACP that dares to have a goal of “transforming the way people resolve conflict worldwide”. In 20 years, it has grown from a handful of like minded lawyers to over 5,000 members from over 20 countries. I’d love to see it grow to 10,000 and more. And I’d also love to see more articles written with titles like “Getting to Yes” rather than “Not Without Blame”.


Michael A. Zeytoonian

Michael A. Zeytoonian is the Founding Member and Director of Dispute Resolution Counsel, LLC and is a lawyer, mediator and ombudsman. He is formerly a partner and now Of Counsel at Hutchings, Barsamian, Mandelcorn & Zeytoonian, LLP, in Wellesley Hills, MA. He specializes in employment law, business law, special education… MORE >

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