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Why I never use the phrase "Shame on you!"

Using shame is an authoritative cop out. It’s a power-over attempt to be punitive. The goal is to induce guilt which can change future behavior. 

And it’s delivered with contempt. That hideous, self-righteous expression — nose squinched in, pulling the upper lip up and barring your teeth. 

But guilt and shame are different animals. Shame tends to shut people down and shut others out. Guilt may help a person feel contrite, and because of true remorse, take different future actions. 

The problem is that attempts to induce shame or guilt are both on the punitive end of the influence spectrum.

And punishment generally doesn’t teach people to think like you or care about what you care about. It puts them in survival mode.

Yes, it might have gotten the compliance from children that parents sought. (At a grave price—disrespect for the one in authority, and later,  often, oneself.) 

It can prompt people to dig in their heels. Think of the last time you did this, to save your ego. So this can actually keep people from examining their beliefs that guide their thoughts, words and actions — the very outcome you’re after!

Since shaming can have the opposite effect of what you’re after, it might not be the best way to get the other person to see it your way and do what you think is right. 

In the short term, it often creates disconnect, distrust, and defiance. It can even create dishonesty, where the person is dishonest with you and themselves.

Because shame is interpreted as an act of damming a person for who they are. Because shame goes to our core. It’s guilt on steroids x a trillion. 

And when shame’s nerve is touched, no amount of logic can tame it. Because logic does not enter into shame’s residence.

Shame is about who we are, not what we did— “I am a bad person” vs “That thing I did was a bad thing to do…I made a bad choice.” 

Can you see the degrees of separation away from our core in these different beliefs? If we ARE bad, then why bother trying to change? If we DID something bad, there’s hope that we can become better. 

Shame is lodged deep in our subconscious, less connected to logic than guilt. Therefore it’s less malleable. And terse one-offs of trying to guilt trip with it are all but useless. It’s a fool’s power tactic. 

When someone attacks our core, by hurling shame at us, most of us, most of the time, we defend ourselves. We don’t listen to the other. We find a way to be “right” at all costs. (Even if we comply in the moment, under the thumb of authority because we have to, or to save face.)

So what can we do instead to influence people to behave differently?

The first step might be to show up with empathy. This does not mean condoning anything. It means having curiosity. We begin this with a conversation in our own head.

Because in reality, they have legitimate reasons for their beliefs and actions, equal to yours. We all have our unique set of circumstances that result, logically, in who we are and what we do or do not do. Human behavior pretty much follows the mechanics of cause and effect.

Here’s the formula for the conversation in your head. Have this before trying to influence someone who’s not in your corner. 

Seth Godin teaches us to answer these 4 questions in order to create empathy within ourselves:

  1. What do they believe that I don’t believe?
  2. What do they see that I don’t see?
  3. What do they want that I don’t want?
  4. What do they care about that I don't care about?

It might be incredibly difficult to answer these questions honestly. It might feel like splitting hairs. And it’s the fork in the road between potential connection vs almost guaranteed disconnection. 

HAPPY 2022! Put a ♥️♥️ in the comments if you’re committed to doing better than we’ve been doing. 

Who’s going to apply that 4-point formula to a difficult situation today?


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