The two couples sat across the table from one another. They were involved in a conflict over the sale of a business. The sellers, call them the Sauls, had agreed not to compete with the buyers. The buyers, call them the Burtons, paid $5,000 down and gave the Sauls a promissory note for $45,000 payable monthly over 5 years. The Burtons had paid like clockwork for two years when they learned that the Sauls had signed up with an Internet company to conduct a business that looked suspiciously like the Burtons’ business. The Burtons consulted their lawyer, who, at their request, sent a strongly worded, inflammatory letter to the Sauls. The letter accused the Sauls of fraud, breach of contract, and other assorted wrongful conduct and demanded that the Saul’s take specific steps to stop their affiliation with the Internet company. Although the Sauls believed they were well within their rights to affiliate with the Internet company, they wished to avoid any conflict. They promptly complied with the Burtons’ demands.

Unfortunately, the Sauls’ actions did not satisfy the Burtons, and the Burtons stopped paying on the note. The Sauls, seeing no alternative, filed a lawsuit to enforce the note, and the Burtons, naturally enough, filed a counter suit (called a cross-complaint), claiming the Sauls to be dastardly, evil people. What started out as a misunderstanding had now escalated into a major conflict. By the time, I was engaged as a peacemaker, they had each spent $20,000 in attorneys’ fees. How did this problem escalate out of control?

All conflicts start with a well-known process: blaming. Blaming is a simple thing to do. Children, for example, are masters at blaming. "He hit me first!" will be the instant response of a child accused of hitting another. Adults are good at blaming too, and, like children, they blame quickly, fully, and without reflection on what they are doing.

Blaming others enables us to place responsibility for our problems on some external cause, usually another person or group. The ever present "they" is a common example of external attribution. "’They’ really try to make life miserable for me," you might hear someone complain. The "they" is some external person or group, usually unidentified, who can be charged with the cause of the complainer’s misery.

Blaming is comforting in a way because it reduces our anxiety about our circumstances. Blaming allows us to establish a causal link between some perceived injury or injustice we suffered and a person we think might be responsible for it. Once blame is asserted, the cause of the problem is established away from us. We have shifted responsibility for the conflict away from us and onto the Other.

Blaming is therefore a common, predictable early step in conflict escalation. As common as it is, blaming is dangerous. It frames the conflict in competitive terms: I’m right—You are wrong. Blaming also fails to frame the conflict in full and useful terms. Blaming blurs important facts and distinctions into a hazy mess. Worse, once blaming has occurred, people tend to defend it. They lock into blaming positions and, usually because of their fear of being wrong, embarrassed, or looking stupid, blindly cling to their position.

So how did the Sauls and the Burtons escalate a misunderstanding into a conflict that cost them each so much money and aggravation. The Burtons fell prey to blaming: They saw what they believed was a questionable activity and immediately judged it as bad. Rather than consider whether the activity was really injurious to them, they assumed the Saul’s were to blame. Once blame was assigned, talking to their lawyer was easy. The lawyer, not knowing any better, translated the blame into legal claims such as breach of contract, fraud, and interference with prospective business advantage. The strong letter was sent, again a blaming action.

By now, the blame was fully established. When the Sauls agreed to stop, the Burtons were unsatisfied. The blame, now ripening into a deep sense of injustice, had not been sufficiently exorcised; the Burtons needed "justice." Something further had to be done to prove the Burtons right, so they stopped the monthly payments. This action forced the Sauls to blame the Burtons for failing to live up to their agreement and forced articulation of the blame in a lawsuit. The Sauls too perceived a strong sense of injustice. The escalation cycle was established and tens of thousands of dollars were spent on attorneys’ fees before the conflict could be resolved. Had the parties reflected on what blaming the other might cost them, they probably would have traveled a different road to resolve their conflict.

Conflict is often viewed as harmful and destructive because it involves blaming. Conflict is, however, value neutral—it is neither destructive nor bad. What determines our perception of conflict is our attitude and approach to it. Getting beyond blame requires us to see conflict as rooted in ourselves as much if not more than in the Other. When this occurs, our relationship to the Other becomes less hostile and competitive and our view of conflict changes. Conflict becomes a creative challenge, an opportunity for greater self-awareness, and process for self-determination.

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By Doug Noll

Douglas E. Noll is a lawyer turned peacemaker, professional mediator, and author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus Books, 2011). He can be reached at doug@nollassociates.com.