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Crucial Conversations QA

The Gift of Forgiveness

Dear Crucial Skills,

When my grandmother became very ill, my dad and his four siblings struggled to come to an agreement about what was best for their mother. My aunt (the oldest sibling) became very controlling and everyone had a difficult time staying in dialogue with her, including my dad who is exceptional at mastering his stories and building mutual respect and mutual purpose.

This conflict has now ruptured relationships such that after more than thirty years of tradition, we are cancelling my grandma’s family Christmas party. I would like to see my dad and his siblings forgive each other and focus on the needs of my grandmother, who is obviously affected the most. How can I help my family overcome past fights and come together for the holidays?

Facilitating Forgiveness

Dear Facilitating Forgiveness,

I was thinking about your question last week while I took my morning run in the National Mall in Washington, DC. As I ran past the wonderful new Martin Luther King memorial, I screeched to a halt in front of a granite inscription that read, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I’ve ruminated ever since on the implications of that powerful concept for your situation. Here are some thoughts I hope will help:

1. Patience is the most genuine expression of love. The first thing to keep in mind is that you cannot force forgiveness. You can’t compel other people to soften their hearts, examine their own faults, or modify their judgments of others. You have to wait until they want to.

Allowing them to go through the process of challenging their own emotions is an authentic expression of your love for them. It reflects your willingness to patiently wait for the family unity you crave so they can go through the natural process of human growth. Attempting to force the process is more likely to create resistance than reform. Watch—but wait—for signs that others feel some of the loss you feel, then make gentle attempts to help them move forward.

2. Forgiveness is the natural result of a new story. We can’t feel differently toward others until we think differently about them—and ourselves. Forgiveness is difficult because we stay stuck in the story we’ve told ourselves about what happened. As long as we maintain a picture of others’ villainy and our own virtue, we feel morally justified in our anger or frustration. We take delight in the suffering we hope the other person is feeling from our withheld affection because we perversely imagine they deserve to suffer or that the suffering is a learning experience. “Perhaps,” we reason, “this mutual misery will help them see the error of their ways and become a better human being. I’m a wonderful person for helping them have this life-changing experience!”

Until we intentionally examine our own faults and others’ virtues, we feel no need to forgive. The instant we begin this painful but wonderful process, the icy feelings inside us begin to melt. If we continue that process to its natural end, feelings of forgiveness are inevitable. Changing your story is the key to changing your feelings. Don’t try to get others to forgive. Instead, help them to challenge their stories. Forgiveness will follow.

3. We’ll challenge what we think when we change what we want. Given that challenging our stories is a painful process, why would anyone do so? We do it when our motives change. That’s why the first principle of Crucial Conversations is start with heart. When your motives change, your behavior follows naturally. People who resist forgiving are sometimes stuck in self-justifying stories—stories that protect them from the pain of reexamining their view of themselves and others. Sadly, the primary motivator that drags our story into the light is the acute experience of the pain of a lost relationship.

Now, I know your question wasn’t about helping yourself forgive, but about facilitating that process in others. So how can we use the principles I outlined above to influence others to forgive? First, don’t rush them. That just distracts them from experiencing the pain that could motivate them to change. Second, acknowledge their pain. Affirm the parts of their story you agree with and the hurt they legitimately feel. Third, invite motivation. Let them know you miss the family gatherings and guess they do, too. Tell them you think there is a way back to the former intimacy if they are open to discussion. Then be patient again. Periodically reaffirm the invitation, but don’t badger. When they’re ready, they’ll let you know.

One of two things might happen if you are patient and supportive. First, your family members may just bury the past and reconnect without resolving anything. Perhaps this is an acceptable compromise if all are happy with it. Second, they may respond to your invitation to help. If they take the second route, this will be your big opportunity for a crucial conversation. I’d suggest you invite them to share their story, then request the chance to share a different view of things. Be clear up front that your intent is to help them see what happened differently so they can feel differently, and gain their consent for this process before you dive into it. If they seem resistant, withdraw and assure them you aren’t trying to force your view on them. If they are going to change their minds, they will have to invite your influence in doing so.

Our judgments or demands of others won’t drive out their stories—just like hate cannot drive out hate and darkness cannot drive out darkness—only love and light can do that. While I don’t think there is any special brilliance in these modest suggestions, I hope you discern the heart of them—patience, love, and an appeal to what they really want is the only path to helping people reappraise their stories and reconnect with loved ones.

Happy holidays and peace to you and yours,


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

5 thoughts on “The Gift of Forgiveness”

  1. I can’t believe how very very mature this advice is. Thanks very much for these very useful and thoughtful insights.

  2. The Gift of Forgiveness is a true gift to people everywhere. It felt like it was written just for me, but with universal truths for everyone. Bravo!

  3. My family has 12 cats and 3 people who smoke. I get sinus and upper respiratory infections when I visit, have to use 2 inhalers, antihistamines, and codeine cough medicine. I normally miss a week of work afterword. My sister’s two daughters have 3 out of wedlock children and live in my mom’s house free. It’s too exhausting for the baby’s daddy to care for them, so my 78 year old mom does. They are consuming my inheritance, my mom’s time and the family house.

    I have a husky dog. The happiest day in my life was when I found a dog park where we run and play with and our friends. I don’t get to do so much because I work long hours. During the holidays I bring him home with me so I can play with him, and we sleep in the famliy living/dining room on the couch. Normally my families’ dog sleeps there. My dog plays nicely with the children. During dinner my dog quietly sits on the floor next to me. He doesn’t beg, but I do feed him tidbits because it gives me joy. My family complains about this, and also makes negative comments about my clothing (unfashionable jeans and sweaters.)

    Of course I could leave the dog home, out of the dining room, but other than visiting my mom, I would prefer to stay home with him and have no family or holidays. Am I being unreasonable in expecting my family to accept the dog near the dinner table?

  4. I have had the privelage of taking the crucial conversations class. It was great to go over the concept of forgiveness again. My husband had history of bad feelings with two brothers over 20+ years. I was able to help facilitate his journey of forgiveness. He did the work and what he found was that once he made the decision ot forgive, it came mush easier than anticipated. Now he takes motorcycle trips with bothof his brothers and has a great time.

  5. I think that the eldest sister may well have seen that with five squabbling siblings, SOMEONE needs to actually make a decision. Mom can’t wait until everyone agrees. I’m just suggesting another story for the siblings who feel that the eldest sister is being “controlling.” (Which sounds like a story that someone is telling about her!) It is also possible that Big Sis is the one with the durable power of medical attorney, unlike the others, and the decisions are, in fact, hers to make. And while we are at it, I don’t see Mom involved in any of the decisions that need to be made. It is her body, her life, and her death.

    The hospital or hospice organization probably offers someone to mediate this mess, which hopefully means letting Mom make her own decisions without having to mediate an exhausting fight among her children.

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