Learning from Koko

We can believe what we choose. We are responsible for what we choose to believe.
Cardinal John Newman
1801 – 1890

Are you good at deflecting blame? Do you act like Koko?

Koko is a very famous gorilla. Her most notable claim to fame is the fact that she has mastered over 1,000 words in American Sign Language: in other words, she has the ability to communicate with humans using sign language.

One day she accidentally broke one of her toys. The incident was captured on videotape, so there was no question what had occurred. The next day, when her trainer discovered the broken toy, he used sign language to ask Koko what had happened. She signed that the assistant trainer had broken the toy.

It seems that deflecting blame is an inborn trait, even for our distant cousins. Koko didn’t want to admit her role in breaking the toy and was quick to blame someone else.

In our society, when things go wrong, our first question is generally, “Who’s at fault?” And our automatic response is, “Not me.” It’s very rare that we’re willing to acknowledge our mistakes.

There are actually two problems going on here. We create the first problem by seeking to place blame. The second problem is trying to deflect blame.

What would have happened if the trainer had told Koko that he knew she’d broken the toy? Certainly nothing good — she probably would have become very defensive, possibly even angry, and denied responsibility. Humans act much the same. We deny being wrong, and if that doesn’t work, we try to justify our actions. We’ve become very good at deflecting blame.

Instead of asking who’s at fault, a better response is to ask how the situation could have been prevented. How can you insure it doesn’t happen again?

Our natural reaction is to deny responsibility for mistakes. But if we deny responsibility, we give up the opportunity to improve, so we’re likely to repeat our mistakes.

Take a good look at your life and consider the situations where you’ve tried to deflect blame. What good did it accomplish?

Instead of spending lots of energy trying to deny responsibility, learn to ask how you can avoid making the same mistake in the future.

The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely to be the one who dropped it.
Lou Holtz
1937 –

Copyright © 2014 John Chancellor

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