Monday Mornings with Madison

Forgiveness at Work Part 2

Part 2:  The Steps to Forgiveness

Conflict itself is not what creates problems and increases costs for businesses.  Rather the problem arises from the inability or unwillingness of those involved and those in leadership to address a conflict in a timely and honest way, resolve the issue, and then for all participants to – most importantly – move on without harboring residual bitterness. Thus, at the heart of all conflict resolution is the ability and willingness of people to give an apology or accept one and let go of all resentments…. the basic concept of ‘forgiving and forgetting.’

Indeed, all religions hold forgiveness as a basic, important principle.  For example, in the Jewish faith, if a man offends someone else, only the offended person can forgive him. The offender must go and ask for forgiveness. If it is withheld, he should go again, later, and ask. If it is withheld again, he must go once more to ask for forgiveness. If it is refused him a third time, then the person withholding the forgiveness bears the blame.  Not only is the person who offended required to seek forgiveness, but the person wronged is also required to give it.  Yet, while forgiveness may be a fundamental part of all faiths, it is in scarce supply…. especially in the world of work.   Last week, we saw that unresolved conflict is considered the single largest reducible cost for businesses.  But people find it hard to give and receive a heartfelt apology and let go of old grudges.  Why is that?  And are there strategies that can help in giving forgiveness?

According to the Experts

Although every religion and culture believes in the power and need for people to give and receive forgiveness openly and freely, people have a hard time asking for and giving forgiveness.  Why is that?  First, it is because most people don’t understand what forgiveness is and what it is not.

What Forgiveness Is.

Forgiveness is an act and a process.  Even when the wronged person decides to forgive the offender, relief or healing is not usually immediate.  Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts a wronged person can do to break the hold imposed by the offender.  Forgiveness can be given freely, even if the offender has not apologized or requested forgiveness.  Forgiveness can be difficult and uncomfortable.

What Forgiveness Is Not.

Forgiveness is not approval of a wrong.  It neither denies nor diminishes a wrong committed by one person against another.  Forgiveness also does not remove the consequences the offender may face because of the offensive action.  Forgiveness is not weakness.  Forgiveness does not give the wronged person the right to hurt the offender in return.  Forgiveness does not mean forgetting.  Forgiveness does not give the offender permission to continue to offend the person wronged, nor does it mean that the wronged person is permitting the offender to offend again.

It also helps to review what national experts have gleaned on the subject of forgiveness.  One such expert is Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects.  He also serves as the Co-Chair of the Garden of Forgiveness Project at Ground Zero in Manhattan.  Previously, he worked with men and women from both sides of the violence in Northern Ireland who had family members killed and with different groups of financial advisors after the stock market crash of 2000 to enhance their conflict resolution and stress management skills.  Dr. Luskin’s research on forgiveness therapy revealed that there are actual physical and mental benefits to being able to give and receive forgiveness.  In addition to businesses being able to save money in all of the direct and indirect ways which conflict resolution and forgiveness impact workplace productivity and effectiveness (see last week’s essay), there are individual benefits to embracing forgiveness as a work-life skill too.  Forgiveness (either giving and/or receiving) leads to increased physical vitality, hope, greater self–efficacy, and enhanced optimism. Forgiveness also lessens the physical and emotional toll of stress, decreases hurt, anger and depression, and reduces blood pressure.   Also, heart attack patients are often able to demonstrate less anger and hostility and thus reduce morbidity when they act in a more forgiving way.  As an added bonus, the overall health and wellbeing of employees ensures a lower cost for health insurance benefits for the entire company.   Thus, forgiveness is a skill that should be embraced and encouraged by all at work.

However, as it turns out, not everyone is equally skilled at giving and receiving forgiveness.  Indeed, a study by Kathleen Lawler Row asked subjects to relate an event or incident that offended them. She recorded their blood pressure and pulse readings as they spoke.  In most every case, the subjects’ blood pressure and pulse went up as they related their stories.  But, some subjects’ blood pressure and pulse returned to normal after a short while.  For others, their altered state continued for a much longer time, regardless of the seriousness of the offense.  From this, she concluded that there are forgiving and unforgiving personalities.  Studies also found that women tend to be more forgiving than men.  Those reasons may explain, in part, why asking and giving forgiveness is harder for some than others.   Part of the issue may also come from the tendency some people have to “ruminate” over old grievances, bringing them up every once in a while and chewing on them again.

That said, there are numerous steps to help resolve conflicts and truly release resentments and grudges.

Step 1 – Acknowledge the Hurt

It is best not to minimize or deny a wrong was done.  Neither the grieved person nor anyone else need make excuses for the offender. A good way to get it out is to write it down.  Journaling is a great way to work through anger and hurt.  Writing helps to organize thoughts, express feelings and acknowledge the truth in black and white as experienced by the person grieved.  Sometimes writing a letter to the offender is helpful but the letter need not be sent to be effective.  It simply allows the person wronged to work through thoughts and feelings.

Step 2 – Understand

It’s been said that to question is the only path toward understanding; the desire to be free of anger the only path toward forgiveness.  Many who study the issue of forgiveness believe that a key step toward forgiveness is understanding.  To that end, a strategy developed by Everett Worthington was based on this concept.  Worthington’s ‘two-chairs technique’ is designed to help a person who was wronged achieve understanding, and ultimately forgiveness.  The grieved person sits in Chair A and addresses the real but absent offender sitting in Chair B, telling the absent offender how he/she feels. The subject is then asked to move to Chair B and respond as the offender might. Sitting in the offender’s place to explain why they acted as they did, the offended subjects are forced to genuinely consider why the offender might have acted that way.  He/she must think “outside the box,” to stand in the other’s place, perhaps seeing for the first time circumstances previously overlooked. This can open the way to seeing both sides of the story, which might then lead to forgiveness.

Step 3 — Cancel the Debt

The person grieved could write a “blank check” of forgiveness.  After writing down the offenses, the grieved individual can write “Canceled” or “Paid in Full” over them.  Thereafter that page can be torn or burnt as a symbolic way of discarding the resentments and hurt feelings.

Step 4  –  Set Boundaries

Either alone or working with a manager or HR contact, the grieved person should consider how to ensure that the same issue does not happen again.

Step 5 — Make a Commitment to Forgive

Lastly, the grieved person should make a personal or (if possible) public commitment to forgive the offender.  The commitment should include choosing not to use the issue as a weapon in the future.  It helps to remember that forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.

Other Things Companies Can Do To Resolve Conflicts

  • Develop increased sensitivity to chronic employee conflict.

Look for major changes in employee behaviors. Be alert to passive-aggressive behaviors such as withholding important information, chronic oppositional attitudes, chronic tardiness and resistance to firm commitments. Note body language when employees interact, especially in tense situations.

  • Implement conflict-resolution training.

Provide seminars on conflict resolution and provide materials to increase understanding of the problem.  One book that describes conflict resolution strategies is The Principled Negotiation by Fisher and Ury.  With training, managers can learn how to act as arbitrators or mediators. Some organizations use peer mediation or conflict management committees.  Consciously creating an environment that allows open and constructive exploration of issues empowers and encourages staff to resolve disputes themselves, or with minimal management intervention.

Forgiving and forgetting is not just good for personal relationships… It is also good for business relationships.  While it is not always easy, forgiveness is a virtue and skill that benefits everyone… the one giving forgiveness, the one receiving forgiveness, and the company too.

Quote of the Week

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Mohandas Gandhi


© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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