How to Forgive Someone
Crucial Conversations QA

How To Forgive Someone

Dear Joseph,

What responsibility does the receiver of an apology have in the healing of deep-seated hurt? I have felt alienated from my brother for eight years. We had a blowup (no one really remembers what it was about). He said some words that cut deeply into me. Then a couple of years later he offered a superficial apology. I made a half-hearted offer of forgiveness. But we still have no real relationship. Is there something more I should do?

Signed,
Personal Battle

Dear Personal Battle,

I’m sorry about the pain and alienation you’re feeling with your brother. Eight years is a lot of time lost. I know you must be feeling the loss of it as well or you wouldn’t have made the effort to write me. I hope something I offer can help you regain your warmth with him.

To paraphrase, you asked what responsibility you have in forgiving another. Interestingly, you asked in a way that suggests there is a relationship between the quality of the apology you receive and the timing of your forgiveness. You gave another telling tidbit as well, offering that “no one really remembers” what the original offense was. Finally, you described his apology as equally superficial to your forgiveness.

I believe there are times when it is risky to forgive. Yours is not one of them. It’s risky to forgive if maintaining a feeling of animosity helps you steer clear of physically or emotionally unsafe circumstances. Those who struggle to hold strong boundaries often equate forgiveness with permission. They couple the surrender of hurt feelings with the collapsing of safe distance, thus enabling others to hurt them again. The fact that you cannot remember the original hurt tells me it has less to do with risk and more to do with resentment. You felt unjustly treated and have nursed the feeling of injustice far out of proportion to the offense.

If this assessment is accurate, I offer the following:

1. 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. You can take deliberate steps toward forgiveness today by listing all the ways you have contributed to the ruptured relationship with your brother in the past eight years.

2. You challenge what you think when you change what you want. Given that challenging your story 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. Are you ready to end the loss? What do you really want? Do you want a high-quality apology? Or do you want a relationship with your brother? Are you ready to sacrifice one to give yourself the other? Notice if even the thought of surrendering your resentments fills you with panic. That panicky feeling is your ego quivering with fear. And that is a good thing. It is you deciding that being “right” is not important as being happy.

I called attention to your equating the timing of your forgiveness with the quality of your brother’s apology. There is no real connection between the two. You can forgive as soon as you choose to. And you will choose to when you both examine your story, and change your motives.

I wish you a happy reconnection with your brother.

Warmly,
Joseph

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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

7 thoughts on “How To Forgive Someone”

  1. I rarely leave a message but your paragraph “there are times when it is risky to forgive… It’s risky to forgive if maintaining a feeling of animosity helps you steer clear of physically or emotionally unsafe circumstances.” struck a chord. Growing up I have been constantly verbally and physically attacked by my brother who is 5 years older than me. I still remember the fear I had whenever my parents were not home and only my brother and I remained at home. I always have a very good relationship with my dad, which my brother does not have. My brother is jealous of me and bullied me whenever my dad was not around at home. My father had to act as my protector. Towards the end of my father’s life, my brother and my father were like enemies. Now I have grown up and left our town and moved to another country. My brother could not reach me now. I feel so much safer and happier. My relatives and friends do not understand why I cut ties with my brother and do not see him even when I visit my home country. But Rome is not built in one day, the verbal abuse, physical attack, fear and shame I suffered because of my brother during my tender years cannot be erased easily.

  2. I am very impressed with the thoughts in this article and appreciate both the question and the answer. I really loved the verbal positioning of the words you used. It is vibrant!

  3. This is wonderful. But I would like you to elaborate on when not to forgive. I have a habit of forgiving too easily and then allowing the same people hurt me over again.

  4. Your statement “It’s risky to forgive if maintaining a feeling of animosity helps you steer clear of physically or emotionally unsafe circumstances.”, resonated with me. I grew up in a very abusive home, and as an adult, I cut ties with many members of my family in order to protect myself and my children. My mother has been dead for many years, but from time to time, I will still have triggers of painful memories of the abuse. I don’t feel like I still hold on to the resentment, but obviously, something is triggering these memories, which will put me in an angry state of mind for a few minutes.

    What can I do so that these random memories don’t come flooding back and most importantly, how do I deal with the anger?

    Thank you

  5. Forgiveness does not mean that you let them back into your life necessarily. Neither does it mean to forget. Forgiveness means letting go of anger and resentment, and freeing up your heart. But keep your head! You need that if you need to protect yourself from untenable relationships, family or not.

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