It’s Not My Fault

“We believe that to err is human. To blame it on someone else is politics.” – Vice President Hubert Humphrey

We have looked at how we have opportunities to LEARN from our mistakes and we pondered about how we react when others make mistakes that affect us. Now let’s look for a moment at what happens when we are to blame. Honestly, when the mistake is our fault we want those affected or offended to be patient, understanding, and forgiving. So why is it that we think when it is not our fault that we have a right to be abrasive, harsh, and critical? Remember, it could have been us. How would we want people to respond to us if we had made the mistake? Would we want to be blamed, yelled at, demeaned, punished, or embarrassed? Yet so often when the fault lies with someone else this is exactly how we react.

Not to be negative, but what should we not do when others make mistakes? If we want to help others learn from their mistakes, just as we hope to learn from our own, we start by refusing to play the blame game. When a mistake is made we must resist the impulse we have to find out who is to blame. This does not mean that we do not hold people responsible for their mistakes, but responsibility and blame are not the same thing. When we are responsible we own up to what we have done and we work to make it right. When we blame we are really just looking for someone to bear the brunt of our reaction to what has happened. We want someone to take it out on; we want a scapegoat.

We need to do all we are able to avoid embarrassing the mistake maker. Whether we realize it or not those who have made a mistake usually do feel badly about it, to the point that they dread our reactions and are quick to hide or deny what they have done. Too often our previous reactions have taught others that we are not to be trusted to deal with mistakes fairly.

Often after someone makes a mistake we do and say things that embarrass them, and unfortunately this is usually done in front of others. When someone makes a mistake, if we are the person responsible for correcting it, then we should do so in private. Of course the part of this that is the most critical is deciding if we are the person responsible to correct the mistake in the first place.

Most people who are affected by a mistake are not the same people who are responsible for correcting the mistake. If we take on that responsibility when it is not ours, we are setting ourselves up over others when frankly we have no right to do so. If the mistake affects us and the offender apologizes and tries to make things right, then we are responsible to forgive them and work with them to deal with the consequences. When we are not in a position of authority we should not act as if we are. It demeans a person and disheartens them. Discouragement is the enemy of education. A discouraged person is not learning from the experience, he is just trying to survive it and get on with things so he can forget the mess he caused.

While we may not be responsible for correcting a mistake we may still be able to offer some advice that will help everyone involved learn from what has happened. We need to refrain from offering free advice though. Free advice is advice we offer when our input is not requested. If someone wants to hear our opinion they will ask for it. If they don’t then we should keep quiet. Keeping quiet is a lost art these days it seems as too many people have too much to say about everything. We need to be quiet, and we need to be willing to listen and learn. If mistake makers are unwilling to take responsibility and if they are defensive about it then they won’t listen to us. Beside that, unsolicited free advice is usually worth exactly what we pay for it.

Now then, what if we are in a position to correct the mistake? We need to do so with an attitude of helping the mistake maker learn from the mistake. Our first thought is usually to find a way to punish the offender instead of disciplining them. What is the difference? Punishment is making someone pay for what they have done. Discipline comes from the root word “disciple” which means “to teach.” Discipline is not making someone pay for their mistake. Discipline is taking the opportunity to teach a lesson as a result of the mistake. To discipline is to educate. Our goal should not be to make them feel bad about what they have done, but to help them learn from their mistake so as not to repeat it.

The best way to remember how to respond to a mistake is to recall that old railroad safety campaign – “Stop, Look and Listen.” Remember the commercials? We stop at the crossing if the lights are flashing or the arms are down. If there are no lights or arms, before we cross the tracks we at least look to see if a train is coming. And even if we do not see a train, we listen. We may not see it, but we can hear it if it is coming down the tracks. When a mistake is made, even when it is not our fault, we need to “Stop, Look and Listen.” If we don’t we are sure to get run over.

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Filed under Communication, Responsibility

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