Crucial Conversations QA

The Gift of Forgiveness

The following article was first published on December 13, 2011.

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?

Signed,
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