The 9-Step Formula for Forgiveness
The cost of not forgiving someone is greater than most of us realize. We go on with our busy lives, thinking that life is easier if we just forget about the past and focus on the present or our future goals. This – with few exceptions – is denial. The past has a way of rearing its ugly head and demanding to be dealt with. And the holiday season is when those heads start popping up all over the place, over the turkey and mashed potatoes, by the stockings or the Kwanzaa candles. Yet the holidays (and all other parts of the year, actually) are a perfect time to forgive the ones we love.
One way or another, intentionally or not, we all end up hurting the people we love most. It is a fact of life. We just can’t seem to rub elbows year after year without causing a little friction, in spite of our best intentions. No family and no love relationship can endure without forgiveness. The happiest families and best relationships are the ones in which people admit their mistakes, apologize, and forgive each other—again and again. Without forgiveness, resentment and bitterness prevail.
Phrases like “let sleeping dogs lie” are still common, but at what cost? The burden of your unspoken anger or quiet resentment? The dread that descends over every family gathering? The loss of a grandfather or aunt for your child? The cost is love. It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong because in the end, everyone loses.
The beauty of forgiving is that, even if it doesn’t come out rosy with everyone hugging and kissing one another, it will make you feel better. All you can do is handle your end of the conversation appropriately and state what happened. You can’t force someone to apologize and you can’t force forgiveness. Everyone knows the difference between a forced apology and one that comes from the heart. You can handle the conversation so that it is more likely to end in forgiveness and you can choose to forgive the person whether or not they apologize.
Some people just can’t apologize. It takes a tremendously courageous person to admit a mistake and apologize. Not everyone is up to this and that is okay. The important thing is whether you are willing to have the conversation. Whether, for example, you would give your partner the chance to make amends. Sometimes it is too hard to apologize on the spot, but if you look, you might see the apology appear later in the form of flowers, a card, a call or helping you out with something. You can assume that any positive gesture is their way of saying “I’m sorry.” That is good enough. Accept it, thank them and forgive them. They are simply doing the best that they can.
Although this process works best with someone who is alive, it can be done with those who have departed. Follow the same process outlined, but write the deceased a letter and read it out loud and forgive them out loud. (I’d recommend doing this privately so that no one sends you to the nut house.) It is easier to forgive someone when you realize that they were doing the best that they could at the time. On the surface it may look like one person is right and one person is wrong, but most of the time it is much more complex. Both parties likely contributed to the problem and need to apologize. Half the time people are angry about something that the offender doesn’t even realize they did. I’ve worked with clients who have carried grudges for so long they don’t even remember what the initial transgression was and all they are left with is the resentment—pretty ridiculous!
The benefits of clearing up the past are huge. You will feel instantly lighter and more free. You will have more energy. You might discover that you didn’t have the whole story all along and were bearing a grudge for no reason. You might gain back a father or a mother or a sibling that you’ve lost for years. At the very least, you will have given them a chance and you might just find yourself looking forward to those family dinners.
Instead of smiling politely and secretly gritting your teeth, why not bring up the dreaded past and deal with it once and for all? The sooner you do this the better you’ll feel.
The 9-Step Formula for Forgiveness
This simple formula works to resolve even the hardest, most grievous wrongs, the bitterest of resentments and the longest and most closely held grudges.
(Tip: This works best if done in a neutral tone of voice without anger, judgement or righteousness. It also helps if you prepare ahead of time by writing down the facts. That way, your mind will be clear and organized when you face the person you want to speak with, and you won’t become muddled in emotion. It is most effective if done in person, but don’t wait because it can be done over the phone, or even by letter.)
- Is this a good time to talk? If you are calling on the phone always ask if it is a good time to talk. If not, ask when would be a good time and make an appointment. If you are meeting in person, make sure that you will not be interrupted and that it is a good time for you both.
- Prepare them. Before you start blurting stuff out, it helps to prepare the person for what you have to say. Just tell them whatever you are feeling right now. For example, “I feel awkward in bringing this up. I don’t know how to say this gracefully, but there is something between us that I’d like to clear up.”
- State your positive intention for the conversation and the relationship. What positive outcome would you like as a result of this conversation? “I would love it if we could be close like we used to be.” Or, “I’d like to clear up the past so that we can be friends again.” “I feel sad that you don’t know your grandchild and would like my son to know you better.” “I would like to have a great relationship with you.” Again, just say what it is you’d really want –the ideal.
- State the facts. Then you can say, “I’d like you to hear me out fully and not interrupt and then I will hear you out fully without interrupting. Would you be willing to do that?” If the person agrees, then you can go ahead. Tell them the facts of the situation. Do not add any judgements or opinions. State exactly what happened to the best of your memory. Keep your voice flat and neutral. Imagine you are a reporter recounting an event as accurately and factually as possible. If they don’t want to listen to you first, suggest that they go first and you’ll hear them out.
- Listen to their side of the story. Then, ask them to tell their side of the story. Listen and do not interrupt no matter what they say, just hear them out completely and when they have finished say, “I hear you.” You can also repeat back what they said so they feel heard and understood. (This doesn’t mean that you agree, just that you want to make sure that you heard them fully.)
- Ask for an apology, if necessary. At this point, you can ask them to apologize and you can apologize for anything you’ve done that hurt them. You may want to ask, “Is there anything that I have done in the past, intentionally or not, that I can apologize for?” And you can also ask them to apologize, “I’d like you to apologize for doing that.”
- Ask for amends. Sometimes an apology is not enough. In which case, you can ask them to make amends, to do something that would make up for the hurt. Don’t be afraid to say, I’d like you to make it up to me. You could do that by sending me a dozen red roses and taking me out to dinner.” Or whatever you want them to do.
- Accept the apology. Then, “I accept your apology,” even if they didn’t get it quite the way you had hoped. Some people need time to think about things before they can apologize. Let them go away and come back to you. Some people will never apologize, but that doesn’t matter because the power of forgiveness lies with you.
- Finally, “I forgive you.” Remember, you can forgive them even if they aren’t ready to apologize.
It takes real courage to forgive.