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How to Forgive

Thinking strategically about forgiveness and renewal.

Key points

  • Thinking about renewal requires a coherent and contingent framework for forgiveness.
  • One strategy for forgiveness is freeing those who wronged us from an emotional obligation, but only after making amends.
  • Forgiveness of renewal starts with empathy and a mindset that recognizes the need for cooperation in creative contexts.
Tim Mossholder/Pexels
Source: Tim Mossholder/Pexels

How do we forgive leaders who exploit their power in a crisis? Or co-workers who make decisions that tarnish all who work there? How do we forgive those we believe support immoral political positions or benefi­t from discriminatory practices?

In our highly polarized culture, where civil discussions between people who disagree with each other are nearly impossible, the question of how to forgive is of the utmost importance. Anyone thinking about renewal needs to develop a coherent and contingent framework for forgiveness. Here are three possible paradigms.

Forgiveness After Reparative Work

The fi­rst strategy for forgiveness is freeing those who wronged us from an emotional obligation, but only after a process that begins with remorse and making amends. We forgive by issuing a judgment in response to efforts by the offender that are both internal, in that the offender comes to feel remorse, and external, in that the offender expresses that remorse and seeks to right the wrong.

Through reparative work and atonement, whatever it may be, the forgiver does not forget the wrongdoing but grants a pardon to enable the parties to work together once again, existing in the present moment, not the past, and constructively move forward. This is probably the easiest path of forgiveness if we are presented with a meaningful attempt at reparative work by those who hurt us. However, it is beyond our control to stimulate a start to the process.

Forgiveness for Wellness

Contemporary psychology offers rationales for forgiveness that have an inward emphasis on personal wellness. Forgiveness is an important step in overall health and well-being from this perspective.

We forgive by releasing resentment and anger. As a strategy, the focus is exclusively on healing the inner state of the victim without necessarily involving any sort of reconciliation.

How can we refine this ability? To get some guidance, I turned to my friend, Amelia Sargisson, an actress, playwright, and one of the creators of ARKS (Authentic, Radically curious, and Kind Support), a toolbox of techniques for theatre-makers. She shared with me that actors are taught "instant forgiveness," a mindfulness-based tool to be used when one hits a false note but needs to remain in the present moment with their scene partners.

An important subcategory of this is self-forgiveness. When we think of forgiveness, we usually frame it as something that we grant to others. We rarely think of it as something that we need to give to ourselves. One of the unhelpful beliefs many of us carry is a commitment to a monolithic notion of our “true selves.”

We believe that most of our traits are immutable, and we judge ourselves harshly for our failings. If we are to engage in meaningful renewal, we need to be comfortable fi­nding new ways to describe our past and selves that better serve the living present.

Forgiveness of Renewal

The third strategy is forgiveness of renewal. Here, the work is putting the relationship back to the level it was at before the offending incident. How do we get there? The key trait is empathy, born of doing the work to recognize that human frailty is forgivable.

Amelia explained to me that as an actor, if she can empathize with somebody, if she might dare to try and understand their motivations, then she is more likely to forgive. “And that is the job of the actor. We do it for characters all the time. We train that capacity within ourselves.”

At the core of ARKS is an overview of the anatomy of conflict with strategies for redirecting energies towards the generative ground of creative disagreement and forgiveness. She explains that actors are “called on to forgive unsympathetic characters all the time.

Drama is only interesting because of conflict. But to be the vessel for that, you must have the mind and spirit to know that, in the creative context, we’re all working towards the same thing.”

The Variety of Creative Contexts

Amelia’s words are striking because most of what we do in our work lives is creative. Why should business leaders, so often consumed with the language of efficiency, profitability, and growth, be interested in the language of forgiveness and renewal?

Well, they know there is a need to increase productivity, innovation, agility, and other creative traits. This won’t happen without renewed buy-in from a multiplicity of stakeholders, many of whom may be feeling disenfranchised.

Any company that hopes to recover from a mass exodus, staunch the bleeding of talent, or re-engage the interests of millennials as a viable home for their career aspirations needs to undertake an exercise in forgiveness. Leaders who embrace this paradigm, and recognize that creative disagreements are necessary and useful, will be positioned to make better strategic decisions. Employees will be empowered to think differently about purpose in work. Indirect stakeholders will see the opportunity to build a stronger, more deeply connected social order. Co-creative efforts will be expanded. It starts with forgiveness.

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