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Center for Enlightened Leadership

The Power of Forgiveness

  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
  Dr. Stephen L. Sokolow
Executive Director and Founding Partner

The idea of forgiveness is ancient, dating back thousands of years to the Old Testament and beyond. From the time we are children we learn that all human beings make mistakes and that we should say we are sorry so we can be forgiven. Forgiveness is so much a part of our culture that it is easy to trivialize its importance and power. Paul Houston and I take forgiveness seriously. As leaders and as people, we’ve needed forgiveness and dispensed it countless times. In fact, as a leader forgiveness is literally indispensable. What happens when you delegate tasks to others and you’re unforgiving when they fall short?

Forgiveness is a powerful force. What happens when you seek forgiveness and it is granted? What happens when you seek forgiveness and it is denied? What happens in a relationship where there is little or no forgiveness? What happens when we can or can’t forgive ourselves? Ultimately, forgiveness is a choice—a choice that can have profound consequences. Each of us decides when and under what circumstances we will be forgiving.

Forgiveness not only affects individuals; it affects groups and institutions. Should Bernie Madoff be forgiven by the investors he swindled? How about Hitler and the Nazi regime? Or British Petroleum for the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, or those who caused the Great Recession? Is everything forgivable or just some things? And by whom? We have the power to forgive. All people and institutions, including governments, have the power to forgive.

Forgiveness is not easy because it involves all aspects of our being. It involves the way we think about what someone or some institution has done or failed to do, as well as our feelings about what has happened, and what we do about it. The full power of forgiveness occurs only when our thoughts, feelings, and actions are in alignment. If we have been wronged or hurt, forgiveness is usually not the first thing that comes to mind. The more common reaction is to want to strike back, to seek retribution or restitution. Why should we forgive people or institutions that have hurt us? Forgiveness poses a dilemma for us because it requires that we find the right balance between two competing values: justice and mercy. As an educator and a parent, one perspective that has been helpful to me is to separate the person from the behavior that caused the harm or hurt. In other words, I have learned to forgive the person, not what they did.

Why bother to do that, you may ask. The answer is that forgiveness has the power to heal and cleanse. Forgiveness helps us heal from the emotional wounds we all carry. Throughout our lives, people and events inflict and infect us with emotional wounds, saying things or doing things that hurt us and affect us emotionally. And at times we say and do things that hurt others, often unintentionally. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people and institutions hurt each other. Through mechanisms that are not fully understood, those feelings of hurt are stored in our body and in our conscious or unconscious mind. Sometimes these emotional wounds fester and affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions for many years. More often than not, the key to healing lies in forgiveness.

Sometimes, the person we must forgive is ourselves—for things we did or failed to do, for things we said or didn’t say. How exactly do we do this? My answer: through a form of talking to yourself as though one part of you is addressing another part of you. You can have a conversation with yourself in the privacy of your own mind, or you can visualize yourself sitting in a chair and talking to the visualized image, or you can look at yourself in a mirror. You can carry on the conversation in the first or third person depending on your comfort level. Here is a third-person example:

“Stephen, you now understand that when you failed to ___________ [say what you failed to do], it hurt ___________ [name the person you hurt]. You regret what happened and take responsibility for it. You have learned __________ [say what you learned] and you will try your best not to repeat your error.” Then say, “Stephen, since you understand what you did and accept responsibility for what happened as a result of what you did, you are forgiven, completely and unequivocally. The slate is clean and you can move forward.”

Here is the same concept in the first person:

“I now understand that when I failed to ___________ [say what you failed to do), it hurt ___________ [name the person you hurt]. I regret what happened and take responsibility for it. I have learned __________ [say what you learned] and I will try my best not to repeat my error. Since I understand what I did and accept responsibility for what happened as a result of what I did, I forgive myself completely and unequivocally. The slate is clean and now I can move forward.”

Sometimes, in order to heal, we have to forgive someone else or an organization or institution. It is important to be as clear as you can in letting another person know that you have decided to forgive them. Tell them what you are forgiving them for and why. You may be responding to a request for forgiveness, or you may just decide to give forgiveness as a gift even though it was not sought. For our forgiveness to have maximum positive effect, it must come from the heart as well as the head.

You may be the person seeking forgiveness. When doing so, it’s important to say what you did or failed to do. If you know, you should acknowledge the harm or hurt that resulted. Express your remorse and offer to make restitution if that is appropriate. Tell the person what you learned and how the experience will affect your future behavior. Then expressly ask for their forgiveness. If they say yes, the process is complete. If they say no or are equivocal, you might ask them to think about it or continue the dialogue to move toward resolution at some point in the future. Having made a good-faith effort in asking for forgiveness, if you are rebuffed, the burden shifts to the unforgiving person. You can still forgive yourself even if the other person is unyielding.

Whether we choose to be forgiving or unforgiving toward ourselves or others, there are consequences. Unhealed wounds can fester and cause us difficulty for years, even decades. Sometimes people wait until they or someone else is dying to seek or grant forgiveness. But what is the advantage of waiting? Better late than never, of course, but why not get the healing benefits sooner rather than later?

We all have the power to forgive. Life certainly grants us ample opportunity to exercise this power. As with many spiritual principles, the more forgiving we are, the more that quality grows within us; similarly, the more forgiving we are, the more we foster that quality in others.

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