Forgiveness is a complex and often misunderstood concept. Theologians and philosophers have discoursed for centuries on what it is, when to offer it, and why it’s good for us. But what about those times when someone’s aggravating or offensive behavior is unlikely to ever change? It’s one thing to extend forgiveness to someone who is genuinely remorseful and asks for it, but it’s quite another to impart it to someone who’s not sorry and is likely not going to change. And yet, that may be the most important time to forgive. Because when we harbor resentment, spite, and other negative emotions, the person at whom we aim them isn’t suffering (and is likely oblivious to our feelings). The only one suffering is us. If you need to shore up your capacity to forgive, here’s how to begin.
Our workplaces are full of colliding personalities, some of whom chafe us to our wit’s end. In the best of scenarios, we can have civil conversations with those whose quirks are irritating and help them become more aware of their (likely unintended) effect. And we certainly hope others would do the same for us, giving us the opportunity to change otherwise annoying behaviors.
But what about those times when someone’s aggravating or offensive behavior is unlikely to ever change? Maybe they’re verbose or self-aggrandizing. Perhaps their intensity is over the top. And what about the sophomoric joke cracker who people fake-laugh at despite not being funny? Or the chronic interrupter, the late-to-every-meeting teammate, the spotlight-hogger, the passive-aggressive sulker, and even the moody snapper? There’s nothing to report to HR, but enough to make life unpleasant. They’ve been given feedback on the issue, maybe even changed for a while, but always regress to their true colors. You’ve vented about them at dinner countless times. You’ve colluded with colleagues behind their back, even concocted ways to isolate them and their obnoxious ways. And you’ve secretly fantasized about them quitting or being fired (and worse).
But at the end of the day, nothing’s changed, especially the excessive degree to which their frustrating behavior consumes your attention.
I recently sat down with, Mark,* a leader on the executive team of a former client of mine. He’d asked to chat about his peer, Aiden* — an overall decent guy with some endearing qualities and flashes of brilliance, but also some decidedly exasperating behaviors. For example, when asked a simple question, Aiden gave exhaustive answers that went on for upwards of 10 to 15 minutes. When asked for a point of view on his area of expertise, he came with dozens of slides to present. Mark vented:
I don’t know if he’s trying to look smart, or he’s so insecure about not looking smart and fears others know more than him, or he’s just a control freak. Whatever it is, the whole team is exhausted by him. We’ve asked him to be more succinct and the boss even got him coaching on “giving executive briefings.” I’ve just started going around him directly to his people to get what I need, but that only triggers him to micromanage them. How do I deal with this guy?
I knew Mark to be a levelheaded guy — emotionally balanced, smart, and principled. To see him this angry felt unusual. So, I asked him a series of questions to see if I could learn what, if anything, might be making Aiden’s behavior more irritating than other routine organizational annoyances outside his control: “I hear a number of frustrations behind your feelings, but what’s the most annoying thing about Aiden’s behavior?” I was hoping to learn if one of Mark’s core values was being breached in some way. For example, perhaps the fact that it was taking too much time to get what he needed was threatening his core value of timeliness and efficiency. Mark paused, then said, “He’s been asked to change said he would and hasn’t.” So, Mark’s value of keeping commitments — something he was exemplary at — felt violated.
After a few more probes, I asked Mark, “If you were Aiden, what would you want from the team?” Mark immediately launched into a defensive tirade about what Aiden didn’t deserve from the team. His assumption was that Aiden was intentionally exasperating the team and therefore deserved no considerations.
I pushed a bit further. “What Aiden does or doesn’t deserve isn’t my concern. But it seems like you’re suffering far more from your resentment of Aiden than you are from his behavior. What if you just forgave him?”
Mark stared at me with a flabbergasted look of incredulity and curiosity. He warily asked, “Why would I do that?”
Mark’s perplexed question is hardly unusual. Forgiveness isn’t something we all keep readily handy in our interpersonal toolkits. But given the rate of accumulating bitterness, perhaps we should. According to one study, 78% of people globally have a lingering resentment of some sort. The average adult is harboring seven grudges.
Why are we so prone to stockpiling resentment? Are our expectations of others so outrageously unrealistic that we’re setting ourselves up for prolonged ire? It’s no surprise that in another study, 62% of Americans say they need to be more forgiving.
Forgiveness is a complex and often misunderstood concept. Theologians and philosophers have discoursed for centuries on what it is, when to offer it, and why it’s good for us. And while it’s one thing to extend forgiveness to someone who is genuinely remorseful and asks for it, it’s quite another to impart it to someone who’s not sorry and is likely not going to change.
And yet, that may be the most important time to forgive.
Because when we harbor resentment, spite, and other negative emotions, the person at whom we aim them isn’t suffering (and is likely oblivious to our feelings). The only one suffering is us. And there’s plenty of evidence showing that emotions associated with unforgiveness — vindictiveness, contempt, hostility, and rage — take severe tolls on our mental and physical health. Worse, they can sour our demeanor, weakening important relationships.
If you need to shore up your capacity to forgive, here’s how to begin.
Misunderstanding Forgiveness Makes It Harder
Let’s start by clearing up some misperceptions that make forgiveness confusing and complicated:
Forgiveness doesn’t mean the restoration of trust.
Just because you choose to forgive doesn’t mean you must automatically trust someone again. When trust has been harmed, it takes time to rebuild. The common phrase “forgive and forget” has compromised our ability to genuinely forgive because forgiveness doesn’t erase the past, nor the memories of hurt.
One definition of forgiveness is “forfeiting your right to retaliate.” You’re simply letting go of punishing someone with your anger. Forgiveness should enable healing the memory of harm, not eliminating it, freeing you up to determine what degree of trust you want to restore.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean sacrificing justice.
One of Mark’s subsequent questions was, “So then Aiden just gets away with his behavior?” Mark’s sense of fairness and accountability felt jeopardized by the notion of forgiveness. The assumption underlying Mark’s question is that Aiden is suffering no consequences for his behavior.
“Aiden does need to be held accountable for his behavior,” I responded. “I’m simply suggesting that you not take on the burden of being the adjudicator of justice. And until that reckoning happens, consider that some of your hunches about what’s driving Aiden’s behavior — deep insecurities, fears, or anxiety — may in fact be an interim source of punishment.”
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you condone bad behavior.
Many fear that forgiving someone means unintentionally signaling that the incurred offense is “ok” and may encourage the person to keep doing it.
Forgiveness isn’t approval. It’s simply an acceptance of things outside your control. While forgiveness can’t change what’s happened, taking control of negative emotions instead of letting them control you can change what lies ahead.
These misconceptions of forgiveness can create natural resistance to doing it. Here are some of the common defenses I’ve heard from people struggling to forgive:
“I don’t want to be taken advantage of.”
It’s easy to fear that forgiving someone will only reinforce their offensive behavior. While they may not change, that shouldn’t stop you from setting boundaries or narrowing interactions with them. Whether their behavior is driven by malice or ignorance, you don’t need to feel like a doormat. You can’t control their behavior, but you can make clear what is and isn’t acceptable.
“Being mad feels good.”
Yes, the momentary surge of self-righteous satisfaction from withholding forgiveness does have the allure of making us feel safe, superior, and “right.” But that’s short lived. Over time, the rumination from negative emotions becomes depleting.
“It’s all your fault.”
Probably the hardest aspect of forgiveness is the requirement to look within at our potential contribution to the problem. Without question, there are some chronically irritating behaviors that are unprovoked. But it’s rare that we’re completely innocent.
I asked Mark, “Do you think the ways you and the team have reacted to Aiden may be reinforcing his behavior? Perhaps the more exiled he feels, the more he tries to justify his value to earn your respect, doing the only thing he knows to do?” My goal was not to excuse his behavior but to offer one possibility to explain it.
The Process of Forgiving
Having worked through your own misconceptions about forgiveness, here are some steps you can take to forgive someone who likely won’t ever ask for it:
Clarify your principles of forgiveness.
This may sound basic, but most of us haven’t done this explicitly. Write down what you believe about forgiveness. Are there conditions that you believe earn it, and if so, what are they? Do you have limits on how frequently you will forgive (e.g., three strikes and you’re out)? Are certain people more deserving of forgiveness than others? What things have you deemed unforgivable?
Reflect on your experiences of receiving forgiveness. When have you been shown grace you felt you didn’t deserve? Now look at your principles and ask yourself, “Is this how I would want someone to determine their forgiveness of me?”
Separate emotions from choices.
Write down all the emotions you’ve felt toward the person with whom you’re angry — for example, resentful, vindictive, fearful, etc. It’s important that you examine your range of emotions and see these feelings as legitimate, especially if the person’s behavior is trespassing on a core value.
Next, consider how these emotions have shaped your behavior. Have you vented about the person to colleagues? Given them a cold shoulder? Made subtle attempts to reciprocate with a taste of their own medicine? Ask yourself if these actions feel consistent with your values. Are these behaviors you would condone from your friends or children? It’s important to validate your emotions, but also to honestly acknowledge potential counterproductive choices based on those emotions.
Reflect on the whole story.
Step back and ask yourself if you’ve considered the full story of what’s happening. Are there factors you’ve ignored, especially your possible contribution to the problem? Have you vilified the other person with cruel labels? Is their behavior triggering a past hurt?
It’s important to shape a new mindset about the situation and the other person. Let go of the labels and be honest about things you might be doing to perpetuate the situation. In Mark’s case, he recognized that his harsh judgments and actions toward Aiden weren’t consistent with his values and may have made things worse.
Forgive, and adjust your posture.
Consciously choose to let go of negative emotions toward this person. You may find it helpful to journal, or even write a note to them that you won’t send. Just as important, forgive yourself for any part you’ve played in the problem, and for expecting someone to be more than they were able to be. Write down a few positive qualities about them that you’ve disregarded. Intentionally shift your posture by choosing to be more gracious, hospitable, even kind to them. And finally, acknowledge the ways this posture is more aligned with your values.
Mark surprised me and his peers by approaching Aiden privately and apologizing for his impatience and for going around him. He told me how surprised and graciously Aiden responded. Mark said, “But no one was more surprised than me … by how good it actually felt.”
. . .
As Dr. Mark Goulston so poignantly defines it, “Forgiveness is accepting the apology you’re never going to receive.” It may be one of the hardest acts we undertake as human beings. It goes against much of what the world has taught us about being strong, standing up for ourselves, and not letting the jerks win. But forgiveness doesn’t have to conflict with any of those beliefs — we can stand up for ourselves and forgive.
*Names have been changed.