“I didn’t mean to.” The defense against blame starts early in childhood, as soon as children learn the difference between doing something on accident or doing it on purpose. Spilled the milk on accident? Mom’s not mad. Spill the milk on purpose? Mom is quite upset.
What we too often forget when we think about the lack of intention is that the impact still exists. Regardless of whether the child spilled the milk on purpose or on accident, nevertheless, the milk still needs to be cleaned up.
Fast forward this thinking to adulthood. How often does a moment of frustration or anger escape our lips and we say something unintentionally hurtful to a coworker, a spouse, or a child? In these moments, the gap between intention and impact still requires attention.
Recently, I was in a grocery store, waiting in line for the check-out behind a lady in a motorized cart. Shortly, she realized that a different check-out lane was moving more quickly than our lane, so she started backing up her motorized cart - right onto my foot. As she attempted at length to ascertain what damage she had caused - “Did I run over your foot, or just your shoe?” - my anger rose higher and higher. Not once during the entire interaction did she endeavor to apologize for running over my foot, not even prior to rushing away from our line and jumping into the faster-moving lane.
Health care practice is starting to recognize the importance of recognizing impact in preventing litigation. Physicians who once would have been advised by attorneys against accepting responsibility for an adverse medical outcome are now being encouraged to approach the impacted parties and apologize. Research into this narrow field of medical litigation bears out the importance to the affected individuals and families of acknowledging the ways in which their health and physical functioning have been impacted by the adverse outcome, even if there is no blame to be had.
Many conflicts occur more because an individual is hurt (impacted), and decides to communicate the way in which they were hurt. They are being vulnerable and trusting by doing this. When they speak up, though, the recipient of this communication might feel blamed for causing the hurt, and they might become defensive. “I didn’t mean to.” However, this defensive reaction creates distance in the relationship rather than closeness. The conversation has not yet turned to the assignment of blame, and perhaps it will never need to.
If you are looking for a way to acknowledge impact in these moments, a great way to do this is to say, “It sounds like you were really hurt by _________________. I’m sorry. How can I help make it right?” The apology shows this person you care about them, but asking if you can contribute to making them whole again goes the distance to show them you are truly committed to their well-being. This creates closeness and builds the relationship.
And parents, if your child spills the milk, it certainly matters whether they did it intentionally. But even if it was unintentional, I suggest handing them a towel and helping them learn to minimize their impact, rather than counting to ten and cleaning up their mess for them.