In my day job I often interview senior executives, the CEO, and front-line workers about a company’s culture and practices. The conversation is often inspiring, as it was not long ago at a Chicagoland catering company that I admire for its strong, positive, people-focused culture.
In our interviews, various employees at this company used a phrase that caught my attention: Autopsy Without Blame (AWoB). They use this phrase to refer to the dissection that takes place after something has gone amiss. Say an order is screwed up, and a high class event is missing their wine and cocktails, a $5,000 mistake. Other companies would scream and fire over a mistake of this size, which is a big hit to the budget. But at this company, after fixing the immediate problem, the team steps back for an AWoB.
At work and at home, most of us are willing to do an autopsy: we’re willing to figure out what got screwed up, why, and who is at fault. It’s the “without blame” part that makes this company unique. In most mistakes, who is at fault matters less than making sure it doesn’t happen again in the future, and than retaining the strong interpersonal relationships that make for a great marriage or a great place to work.
In the month or so since the interviews I’ve thought of the AWoB phrase repeatedly. I think the concept transfers well to the topic of marriage, so here are my reflections on what’s important for performing an AWoB in your relationship.
Get some space
In real life, autopsies aren’t done at the scene of a crime. They’re done in a lab – a new, neutral environment – hours, days, or even weeks after. In your relationships, you need some distance from the fight or problem to fairly perform an AWoB. I know “don’t let the sun go down on your anger” is a standard piece of marriage advice. And most of the time it’s true. But sometimes some distance from the immediate, emotional response of anger is the best thing you can do to ensure an honest and kind conversation. Don’t do the autopsy until you’re in a calm emotional space.
Neutral environments can help too. Melissa Weiner-Davis, in her aging but useful book Divorce-Busting (which we’ve referenced many times on this blog, like here and here), recommends changing locations in the middle of a fight. Move from the living room to the bathroom … it doesn’t solve the problem, but a new location can function like a “reset” button. For your autopsy, pick a location that’s neutral – the back porch, the local coffee shop.
Here’s where my degree in communications comes in handy. Whenever you’re discussing a challenge, always use “I” language. In other words, instead of “You really upset me when ….,” try starting with, “I felt upset when …” This takes the blame off the other person, and puts the real problem front and center.
Give benefit of the doubt. Start the autopsy by assuming your partners has a very reasonable explanation for the position he holds, the choices he made, etc. Assume the best of him or her.
Did it turn out that your partner was a little at fault for the circumstance that led to the argument? Then show gentle disregard - if you believe your partner really wants the best for you and your relationship, then it’s not too difficult to overlook a few imperfections. You want them to do the same for you.
And finally, part of showing respect is realizing that at least half your argument was crap to begin with. This always happens to me. I feel impassioned about an opinion or a certain course of action. I argue for it vigorously. Defensively. With disregard for Cliff’s perspective. Then I actually listen to his perspective and realize that a solid percentage of my own opinion isn’t as defensible as his. An AWoB gives you the space to make a U-turn when required.
Take responsibility for the future
Finally, if only one participant ends the autopsy with a “to do list” for change, then it wasn’t really an autopsy without blame. You both screwed up somehow, I’m certain of it. Figure out what you can do differently in the future to keep disagreements from escalating to fights, fights from becoming big problems, and big problems from sucking the joy out of your relationship.
The autopsy analogy breaks down, of course. Autopsies happen after something has died. Your relationship isn’t dead … but the argument can be. Dissect it, figure out how to fix the root causes, and move toward the future. Together.