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Section 26
Responding to Blame Events in Infidelity Counseling

Question 26 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Printable Page

Blaming events (N = 25) were identified in seven interviews conducted by prominent theorists who espouse a constructionist or narrative approach to family treatment. Congruent with this perspective, we used conversation analysis (Gale, 1996) and the grounded theory method of constant comparison (Corbin & Strauss, 1990) to identify the therapists' behaviors and strategies following blame expressed by family members. Results indicated three core categories or themes of therapists' responses to blame--Ignoring/Diverting, Acknowledging/Challenging, and Reframing--subsuming 17 individual codes (e.g., challenging all-or-none thinking, highlighting neutral information, interrupting, focusing on competence). The most frequent code was focusing on the positive.

Constructionist and narrative approaches to family therapy seek to engage clients in a joint project to think and talk about their lives in ways that highlight possibilities, rather than fixed clinical "realities," and solutions rather than problems. At least theoretically, therapeutic conversations (Gilligan & Price, 1993) vary in their specific practices, but share a focus on generating new ways to imagine and image the interpersonal worlds of family members. The conviction that it is therapeutic to construct new narratives is based on the philosophical assumption that reality is created by language and interactional habits in families, treatment systems, and the culture at large (McNamee & Gergen, 1992).

But what does this mean in concrete terms--how does it translate into clinical practice? Some writers (Hoffman, 1992) argued that narrative changes are best realized when therapist-client interactions are mutual and when therapists assume a "not-knowing," nonexpert stance (p. 28). According this perspective, because "the conversation, not the therapist is its [the therapeutic narrative's] author" (Hoffman, 1992, p. 18), the therapist should not "talk or manipulate" the client away from his or her own ideas (p. 35). Other writers (e.g., Efran & Clarfield, 1992) challenge this assertion, arguing that a constructionist approach does not mean that all perspectives are valid or useful, or that therapists must eschew strong opinions or directiveness.

The present study speaks to this controversy by taking the broad question, "What is it that constructionist or narrative therapists actually do?," and focusing on one therapy event that is well known to therapists, theorists, and researchers--blame. From one perspective on constructionism, blame can be acknowledged by a therapist but should neither be confronted nor advised against. From another perspective, blame can prompt any number of therapist responses, including confrontation and advice.

In this study, we defined blaming events as episodes in a therapy session during which a family member makes negative attributions about the abilities, traits, intentions, and motives of one or more other family members. In essence, these events constitute a certain kind of narrative about the problem, one that highlights fault.

In the present study, our aim was to identify and systematically describe the ways in which expert constructionist and narrative therapists handle the expression of blame in family interviews. We sampled seven, full-length interviews by different therapists, and focused specifically on their responses to blame. The study was discovery-oriented in that we did not try to fit the therapists' responses into predetermined categories. Rather, we allowed the raw data to reveal categories of therapist behavior that followed clients' expressions of blame.

Therapist Responses to Blame
Ignoring/Diverting: This category was the most frequently used of the three that emerged from this analysis. The five codes in this category included (a) focusing on the positive, (b) asking a question to focus on feelings, (c) interrupting, (d) highlighting neutral information, and (e) emphasizing a successful resolution of the problem. From a conversational analysis perspective, each of these codes represents a diversion from the topic introduced by the speaker. By interrupting, or by anticipating the blame and redirecting the conversation to another topic or individual in the session, the therapists implied that blame is not a suitable topic for discussion. In one interview, for example, a brother had been criticizing his sister's behavior; the therapist, anticipating continued blame, interrupted to ask him a question that focused on his own feelings. In another interview, the therapist interrupted when the mother asked her daughter to enumerate even more of her misbehavior. The therapist's intervention blocked the mother's question to the daughter and gave the latter permission to state something positive about herself. It should be noted that the term ignoring refers to deliberately not acknowledging the blame by interrupting, shifting the topic, or focusing on a nonblame aspect of the client's message. Indeed, following each of the blaming markers in these seven interviews, the therapists intervened in some way. In other words, ignoring did not take the form of simply allowing the blame to continue. Some kind of diversionary tactic was employed in every instance.

Acknowledging/Challenging: In contrast to the first category, the second category is acknowledging or challenging the blame. Five codes comprised this category: (a) identifying blame as a topic for discussion, (b) putting the problem in the context of a relationship, (c) challenging all-or-none thinking about the blame, (d) questioning the blamer about the other's perspective, and (e) speaking for the client in response to the blamer. While not ignoring or merely diverting the blame, the therapist's behavior either actively avoids agreement with the blame or challenges it. In Interview B, the therapist confronted a mother during an episode in the session where she was criticizing her daughter's attitude toward school. In another interview (A), the therapist began the session by asking what everyone in the family would like to discuss. Rather than becoming sidetracked when two individuals began to blame one another, the therapist cut short the discussion by calmly acknowledging the issues on both sides.

Reframing: The third category, reframing, had five codes which were located in three of the seven interviews. These codes were (a) focusing on competence, (b) focusing on the positive, (c) using metaphors, (d) redefining or reinterpreting, and (e) expanding the theme to bring in a new perspective. In one interview, when the parents criticized their daughter for not responding to questions from the therapist, the latter pointed out a possible positive motivation for her silence. In another interview, the therapist used refraining to highlight a child's competence following her mother's criticism.

In only one interview (C) was metaphor used in response to blame; several different metaphors were used. Immediately after the husband described an argument with his wife over something inconsequential, the therapist described this tangent as a "decoy" that "takes a hunter off the scent." At a later point, the therapist described the couple as "under a spell" for which they were not responsible. Use of this last metaphor not only absolved the couple of blame, but put them in a position of fighting against the blame, rather than against one another.

In each of the events we studied, the therapists responded in some way to the clients' expressions of blame. What happened next? We observed no uniformity in the clients' responses to the therapists' interventions. In most cases, after the therapists responded immediately to the initial statement of blame, there was no further blaming in the remainder of the interview, but in other cases, family members continued to blame one another for several successive speaking turns. In the latter situation, the therapists tended to shift from one category of response to another. In one event, for example, the therapist shifted from acknowledging the blame to refraining it as a "conflict" between two family members. In another event, the therapist began by challenging a mother's dichotomous thinking; when she did not stop blaming her daughter, the therapist shifted the topic altogether. Although the focus of this research was on the therapists' responses to blame, and not on the clients' reactions to these interventions, we noted that in four interviews (A, B, C, and G), those in which the blaming events occurred early in the session, no blaming was observed beyond the first 1/3 of the interview. Although it is not possible to determine whether the therapists' interventions were indeed effective in halting the blame, it is interesting to note that (a) these four interviews had the greatest number of blaming events, and (b) the therapists in these sessions used the greatest number of responses (range 4-9 different codes). By contrast, in the three sessions (D, E, and F) in which blaming did not begin until the second half of the inter-??? view, the therapists used only one or two different kinds of responses.

Discussion
Blame on the part of family members provides a challenge for all therapists, but perhaps more so for those who work from a narrative or constructionist perspective. If therapists want to avoid confronting their clients' versions of reality, what should they do when family members engage in mutual blame? Indeed, the expression of blame provides therapists who espouse a "not-knowing, nonexpert" ideology (Hoffman, 1992, p. 28) with a curious dilemma since it is generally agreed and has been empirically demonstrated that blaming conversations are not healthy ones. In every instance in the present study, the therapists immediately responded to clients' expressions of blame. Moreover, there was some indirect evidence to suggest that their responses may have been effective. In four of the seven sessions, the blaming events occurred early in the session and expressions of blame were not repeated after the therapists intervened. Three categories of response emerged from our qualitative analysis of these seven interviews. Not surprisingly, the ignoring/diverting category of response was most common, as the codes in this category (focusing on the positive, highlighting neutral information, and so on) are most consistent with a narrative perspective on therapy. Consider Michael White, for example, who describes his approach as bringing certain aspects of clients' stories out of the shadows by shining a light on them. We may see the ignoring/diverting kinds of responses to blame as the flip side--leaving the blaming aspect of clients' stories in the shadows by shining the light elsewhere. On one level, ignoring/diverting responses can be seen as contrasting sharply with the other two categories of response. On another level, however, ignoring/diverting responses do reflect an implicit stance against blame. The acknowledging/challenging and refraining responses are more direct, more educative, and reflect the view of therapist as expert. Behaviors like challenging all-or-none thinking, questioning the blamer about the other's perspective, and identifying the blame as a topic for discussion are more explicit challenges to the blamer's view of reality. In the reframing category, the use of metaphor and redefining/reinterpreting the blame offer, although clearly do not compel, clients to consider new ways of thinking about their situation.

From a narrative perspective, helping clients construct new linguistic habits around blame may well be more complex than a blame/intervention/nonblame sequence of events. Because the process of narrative therapy unfolds more slowly than in more directive approaches, it requires analyses of events that are extended further in time. This means considering even lengthier episodes within sessions, as well as data from more than one session.
- Friedlander, Myrna L.; Heatherington, Laurie; Marrs, Abbe L. Responding to Blame in Family Therapy: A Constructionist/Narrative Perspective;  American Journal of Family Therapy, Apr-Jun2000, Vol. 28 Issue 2
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

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Personal Reflection Exercise #12
The preceding section contained information about responding to blame events in infidelity counseling.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

QUESTION 26
What are three categories of therapist responses to blaming events? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.


Answer Booklet for this course
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The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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