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Crucial Accountability QA

How to Forgive, Forget, and Move Forward

Dear David,

How should I handle a very opinionated person who says things to me that are hateful and mean? This particular person is so opinionated that I could try giving my point of view until I’m blue in the face and they won’t hear a word I say. When I’ve tried expressing how their comments make me feel, it doesn’t seem to matter to them and they respond with, “Well that’s just the way I feel. That’s my opinion.” However, they want to then continue on with the relationship and act like nothing has happened, yet I’m left harboring negative feelings about the hurtful things they’ve said. This relationship is very important to me so I want to get past it. How do I forgive and forget so that the relationship can move forward?

Regards,
Drowning in Opinions

Dear Drowning,

This is the point where a parent might say, “Just find better friends.” But I’m betting that’s too simple, right? For example, let’s assume that this opinionated person isn’t just a friend—she’s your mom. I’ll try a few suggestions.

What do you really want? You say you want to “forgive and forget so the relationship can move forward.” This is a worthy goal, but it’s also a goal that demands a lot from you. I’ll focus on the “forgive” part. I’m not sure the “forget” part is as important as “moving forward.”

Negative stories. This person (let’s say it’s your mother) is telling herself an unflattering story about you—about your character, your capabilities, your motives, or your future. Some of this negative narrative is based on facts, i.e., her experiences with you over the years. But this narrative is also affected by her own strong opinions, which are obviously different from yours. The result is that your mother is more likely to see your flaws than your strengths because they fit the storyline in her head. In addition, instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt, she’s likely to assume and expect the worst—again because that fits her narrative.

Next, cope with her negative narrative about you.

Take responsibility. Be accountable for the parts of the story that are actually true. For example, if your mother is accusing you of being thoughtless and mean, and she has evidence, then admit it. Apologize. Do your best to repair the damage you’ve done, and then move on. If you don’t own your past, you won’t be able to clean the slate, and earn a fresh start. But don’t expect to ever really earn a fresh start. Your mother’s narrative is based on a long history, and her opinions are bolstered by multiple sources of influence.

Center on areas of Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect. Focus on the parts of the relationship where you have Mutual Purpose and feel Mutual Respect, and then build from there. Focus on commonalities instead of differences. I’m not telling you to avoid touchy disagreements. You won’t hear that from the folks who brought you Crucial Conversations. But don’t turn disagreements into wedges that drive you further apart. Instead, be direct, honest, and frank about your differences, while—at the same time—reiterating Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect. Remember, you don’t love your mother because of her opinions; you love her regardless of her opinions.

Stop using her as a reference for your own self-respect. This is more difficult than it sounds. Quit looking to her for approval in areas where the two of you disagree. Find better ways to determine your self-worth. Decide that her disapproval doesn’t matter to you—at least not as much as it does now. Your mother will continue to make opinionated statements, but you can determine whether her opinions hurt you or not. Make yourself invulnerable to them.

Now, influence her opinions.

Explain natural consequences. You suggested her opinions are unlikely to change, and you know best. Verbal persuasion is not a very powerful way to change hearts and minds. But here are a couple of suggestions for when she says, “That’s just the way I feel. That’s my opinion.”

Personal Consequences—natural consequences to herself. Point out the inconsistency between her opinion and the person you love. “I know it’s your opinion, and I respect that. But I don’t think it’s who you really are. I know you as a loving person. When I hear you say something hurtful, I don’t see it as the real you.”

Social Consequences—hidden victims. Explain the impact she is having on others—that she may not be aware of. “I don’t think you knew that Mary—the eight-year-old at the table—her grandfather died of cancer earlier this month. When you said smokers deserve to get sick, she left the table. I found her sobbing in the bathroom.”

Model your values. Direct and vicarious experiences are the most powerful ways to change attitudes and opinions. You provide these experiences, so make sure they are positive. For example, imagine that your mother is hearing hateful opinions on TV about a certain aspect of your life, but is seeing that contradicted in the way you actually live your life. Your living example is more powerful than any media. But don’t expect her to change her words—at least not at first. She may be too prideful for that. Instead, look for her to soften her actions. Allow her actions to speak louder than words.

I hope these ideas will help,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’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.
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8 thoughts on “How to Forgive, Forget, and Move Forward”

  1. This is such a touch nut. Sometimes it is our own inability to let it go that keeps the negative feelings flowing. Modeling values is so important and puts the focus not on the other person but on the person you ultimately have control over.. Would love to see a workplace example on this topic.

  2. I agree with the above comment. How to facilitate people “letting go” of past hurts, especially with the power differential between a supervisor / or higher graded person and an very experienced field worker.

  3. Yes, a workplace example would be very helpful – thank you for this family example, I can see immediate uses in my own family!

  4. Great comments! As for a workplace example… Let me pose a challenge: Imagine that the colleague or boss isn’t that ogre you’ve come to dislike. Instead, imagine him or her as your mother–with all the love, respect, and complexity that involves. This imagination game might cause you to examine him/her with greater insight and compassion.
    Take a minute to watch Kerry’s video: The Gray Fedora. It makes the point better than I ever could:

    David

  5. “I know it’s your opinion, and I respect that. But I don’t think it’s who you really are. I know you as a loving person. When I hear you say something hurtful, I don’t see it as the real you.”
    aside from seeming a little contrived, isn’t this rather inflammatory? it’s almost like, “you’re not acting like the you i want you to act like…” implying that “you should behave in a way that i think is appropriate to you” and/or “i only love certain parts of you.”

    i think the natural consequence is more along the lines of “if you keep acting like that, i’m going to spend less time with you,” although this really doesn’t sidestep the core issue of how making discerning judgments about someone’s behavior and deciding not to witness or support it becomes so easily confused with hating some part of them…
    i worry that on some level these two acts might be inextricable, which would make it hard not to be honest by saying something like, “i just think that behavior shouldn’t exist, adolf. please do us a favor and commit suicide if you intend on sustaining it any longer.”

  6. Bean: Thanks for your perspective. I agree that the statement I shared could come across as contrived or inflammatory. So much depends on the way it is delivered. If it feels fake to you, then it will be seen as fake by others. If it is true for you, then it’s likely to be seen as true. We are all pretty good at detecting insincerity. The higher-order rule needs to be, “stay frank, honest, respectful, and sincere.”

    Darcy: I chose to fill in “mother” because I wanted to set up a situation where “ending the relationship” wouldn’t be the obvious solution. I wanted to put pressure on myself to come up with a strategy that wouldn’t have any easy outs, such as “find new friends” or “find another job”. Would you have filled in some other person?

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