Assigning Blame Changes Nothing – Questions Change Everything

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on December 14, 2011

There are times when it seems that people are mere victims of circumstance, rather than authors and creators of their own experience. The formula of being the effect of a cause is as old as time, and is in common use whenever people are miserable. The right question can break the connection of cause to effect, and the spectacular effect is to find the deep structure information that seeks to be the cause of an effect.

The gist of cause-effect statements is that X somehow causes Y. That’s the language of blame.  And it’s also a common linguistic behavior to attribute cause to an outside agent, particularly as a way of disclaiming ownership over an unsavory result. ‘He made me miss the turn.’ ‘She made me forget what I was saying.’ ‘He wouldn’t let me finish.’ While sounding like a victim of circumstance may sound plausible, the fact is that it is rarely true.

More often than not, we are victims of our own choices, perceptions, and assumptions. So when someone insists that an outside agency is forcing him to move in a particular direction or have a particular reaction, you can tease it apart by asking about the connection. How does X cause Y specifically?

‘You make me mad’ might sound plausible. But that’s the time to become curious about “How, specifically, do I make you mad?” The response that you get when asking for the linkage between X and Y constitutes a person’s internal linkage for ‘makes me mad.’ “You make me mad by ignoring me when I talk to you.” She thinks you are ignoring her when she talks, and that thought makes her mad. You ask, innocently enough, about the process word, the verb ‘ignore,’ by asking the question “In what way do I ignore you?” She responds “By reading the paper when I talk.” You ask, “So if I read the paper when you talk, that means I’m ignoring you?” “Yes,” comes the response.

You now have a choice. If you choose, you can put the paper down, since you know what it means to her, and that will be the end of it. Or you can go deeper into her initial communication. “What would you rather I do when you talk to me?” “I want you to be interested.” “Interested in what way?” “In what I’m saying!” “How would you know that I was interested in what you were saying?” “Well, you could nod your head when I talk, maybe ask me some questions.” Now you know what to do while reading the paper so that she doesn’t feel like she’s being ignored. Nod your head, and ask questions.

But you have other choices, too. You can ask for a counter-example. “Do you ever read while someone’s talking? Like reading a menu in a restaurant for example? Or a book on vacation?” “Yes, I suppose I have.” “How is it possible for you to listen while reading?” ‘Well,’ comes the answer, ‘sometimes I multitask.’ ‘Mmmhhhmmm,’ you reply with understanding and a knowing look. Now you apply the new meaning to yourself, by asking a closed question that contains the new meaning and requires a yes in response. ‘Is it possible that I can multitask too, and that when I’m holding a paper and you’re talking, that I’m actually listening to you?’ ‘Yes, I suppose it’s possible.’

Now it’s time to show a little gratitude for the new understanding. “Thank you. I’m glad you understand me better, because I certainly enjoy hearing what you have to say!’ And now you can pick up the paper and finish reading that article in peace! It’s your choice. You always have a choice. Nobody makes anybody do anything. Well, hardly anyone.

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