Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’


While the narratives that we tell of our lives define who we are and our place in the world, a story built up around the good bits only does not establish us as plausible human beings.   Since just over a year, thanks to facebook’s  new timeline feature,  everyone is dutifully filling in the gaps and plumping up their narratives with pictures, maps, apps and events.  The facebook sell on it is that it “helps you to tell your story” starting with “born on…”  and  following with images of ourselves from infancy to parenthood and beyond.

The idea behind facebook’s timeline is to help us create a chronological autobiography of annotated photos and posts,  likes and activities so that those who are our facebook “friends” are able to claim a bird’s eye view of our lives and have a fuller and deeper understanding of who we really are, how we got to where we did and who we met along the way.

What most of us naturally tend not to record are pictures of the times we didn’t make it to the finishing line with a big smile on our faces, of the loves that went badly wrong and cost us a fortune in therapy, of the numerous acts of poor judgement (not only in youth) or of the misdemeanours and everyday failings that go to make up a life lived.  We have no pictures of the conflicts we have kick-started, of those that we unwittingly became involved in, of the difficult conversations that we are still avoiding or the wounds that have cut so deep as to be unforgettable.

And yet, these negative experiences are the catalysts of learning and growth that chisel the contours of our lives and provide us with the depth and meaning essential to our development as human beings.   Without this downside,  our virtual timeline courtesy of facebook will never present the full picture and neither we nor our friends will ever attain the promised bird’s eye view of who we truly are.

As a conflict coach, I help people to understand the role that conflict plays in their lives, the conflict patterns that repeat themselves,  their personal conflict responses and the opportunities and potential for change that their particular set of values and strengths inherently hold for them.  While conflict profile assessments are a good place to start, I find working with timelines that record both the negative and positive milestones in life hugely effective in providing the client with an understanding of who they are in relation to conflict and gaining an accurate picture of their conflict profile as it presents itself over a lifetime.

A timeline therefore that reaches beyond the high-days and holidays to record both the negative and positive events in our lives allows us

  • to identify the opportunities that have come our way and the choices that we have made in response to them
  • to identify influential people or pivotal experiences
  • to recognize the significant thread or theme that runs through seemingly unconnected events in our lives
  • to identify behavioral patterns in relationships, particularly as regards managing conflict
  • to see how negative events have influenced us
  • to understand the challenges and stumbling blocks on the way to change

How to draw your timeline:

Turn an A4 sheet of paper broadside and draw a horizontal line along the length of it, leaving a small margin at both ends.  Mark the line off into five-year periods starting at birth up to the present.  Record positive events above the horizontal line by making a mark on the timeline and drawing a vertical line to the text above that names or records the event.  At times you may need to stagger the length of these lines so as to make space for multiple events during one specific period.   Record negative events below the horizontal line in the same way.  Leave enough space in the five-year period for several events to be recorded or for you to come back to and fill in later.  Make it as complete as possible and then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there an obvious theme running through my timeline?
  • Is there a single driving force that  has influenced the decisions I have taken in my life so far?
  • What are the important stages in my life?  Which people or events have marked them?
  • What are the turning points and which events have led to them?
  • Where are the forks in the road and the criteria that I used to evaluate my choices?
  • Which negative experiences have not been dealt with?
  • Are there negative experiences that through any act of mine can be turned into positive experiences?

Once these questions have been answered and digested and you feel that you have taken all you can get out of your timeline, use it as a launching pad for projections and planning for the years ahead.  The following questions will get you going:

  • If I am able to choose, where do I want to be in five or ten-years time?
  • What do I need to undertake to get there?
  • Is this consistent with the overall themes of my life?
  • What is your driving force for the next  period in my life?
  • Is this consistent with my long-term goals?

Now that’s what I call creating a fuller and deeper picture.  That’s what I call a timeline.


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Dissing or the act of expressing verbal disrespect (originally between Gangster-Rappers and Hip-Hoppers) has become so mainstream that even I know what a diss is.   A form of scathing urban banter, dissing piles up scorn and aims to humiliate the other by attacking their deepest vulnerabilities – the family (particularly mother or sister), the gang or the victim’s abilities.  The diss furthermore, allows the person dissing to appear superior and  powerful and is designed not only to provoke but to destroy the other by exposing these vulnerabilities to public hearing. Understandably, dissing leads to deep personal wounding and is the cause of often intractable conflict.  It also serves as a perfect example of contempt and has all the elements of this strong emotion as it is experienced in the workplace and in our homes.

From the point of view of interpersonal conflict management, contempt in the words of John Guttmann, is “sulphuric acid for relationships” and one of the strongest indicators that our relationship has hit the skids.

How do we recognize contempt?

Contempt has 4 elements:

  • Expressed when people are interacting with each other
  • A negative evaluation of another’s behaviour or person
  • A sense of moral superiority over the victim
  • Positive feelings about oneself

Speaking down at someone, joking at another’s expense, ridiculing, insulting and name-calling, raising doubts about the other’s capabilities or integrity, challenging the other’s qualifications or running a private smear campaign by gossiping or rumour-mongering are all forms of contempt.    Similarly, blanking, overlooking or ignoring someone, rolling the eyes in exasperation, smirking or raising the eyebrows in that “oh really!” look, interrupting the other when speaking to correct an expression or point out a grammatical error or clearly waiting for someone to “get over it” are all expressions of contempt guaranteed to offend the other at a deeply personal level.

What does contempt look like?

Research has shown that the facial features of contempt involve a unique unilateral curling of the lip on one side of the face only, often accompanied with a slightly raised and tilted head by way of “looking down one’s nose” as well as a turning away or leaning back from the person held in contempt.

What is the effect of contempt?

Relationships visited by contempt suffer the consequences of deep wounding and mistrust.   John Gottmann points out that of the four deadly relationship sins (the other three being criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling), contempt is the most odious and the clearest predictor of a short-lifespan of a relationship.   In addition, the caustic nature of contempt is directly linked to a weakening of the immune system and is a strong indicator of poor health in years to come.

In our private lives, contempt is the death-knell for relationships.  In our professional lives it heralds in some of the most severe consequences of workplace conflict: sick-leave, early-retirement and job loss for the victims of contempt, while for organizations,  contempt substantially influences abstenteeism, staff fluctuation, poor performance, low morale, sabotage and damage to property as well as placing higher demands on social resources such as those for early retirement, health benefits and legal expenses.

How to counteract contempt?

Are you the name-calling type or do you “fight dirty” when you feel cornered?  If this is the case, ask yourself how else you could express your frustration or whether requesting time-out in a tight situation might give you the necessary distance and down-time to gather yourself and respond appropriately and proactively

  • Always be willing to repair damage:

Once you are aware of what constitutes contemptuous behaviour, be willing to apologise and repair the damage if you do behave in this way

  • Cultivate a culture of appreciation in your relationships:

John Guttmann calls this the antidote to contempt.  By cultivating the habit of expressing appreciation rather than criticism within a relationship, contempt is outlawed.  By simply replacing every contemptuous thought with an appreciative thought and if you have to speak, then doing so appreciatively, you not only prevent toxicity arising but at the same time, shore up good credit in your relationships that will pay off a hundredfold.

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When it comes to saving a marriage, forget the great boudoir secrets of the world or all your mother ever told you about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach  –  US marriage guru Dr. John Gottmann predicts the success or downfall of relationships with astonishing 90% accuracy by simply observing couples argue.

How well we fight and how we deal with conflict even at the very early stages of a relationship is apparently the best indicator yet of how likely we are to be together five years down the line.

From his vast collection of empirical data, Gottmann has identified what he calls the  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – four conflict habits that, if allowed to develop, are a sure-fire indicator that you’re on your way to a sorry end sooner rather than later.

1.  Criticism

This is the personality or character-type criticism (not to be confused with constructive criticism) that usually serves to allocate blame and by which we feel fundamentally set upon by our partners.  The usual text begins with generalisations like “you always…”, “you never…”, or specific assertions like “why are you so…?”

2. Defensiveness

This conflict response serves to block off communication, to score against the other through counter-attack or to launch a pre-emptive strike by slipping into the role of the victim.  Typical texts here are “yes, but…”, “its not my fault…its yours”, “I didn’t…you did”.  Out of the victim’s corner one might hear “you’re always picking on me” or “I can’t do anything right”.

3. Contempt

In Gottmann’s view, this is the relationship’s red card and the surest indicator of impending disaster.  Contempt attacks the partner’s sense of self and includes put-down tactics designed to expose or belittle the other, showing one’s superiority, pulling rank, flaunting  status or being openly insulting.  Expressions of contempt include verbal abuse, sarcasm, scorn, humiliation or “jokes” at the other’s expense.

4.  Stonewalling

This conflict response comes in the form of body language:  the partner withdraws from the conflict encounter by turning away physically, avoiding eye contact and withholding the natural signs of communication such as nodding, repeating phrases or words used or making the little noises that indicate that we’re still on track and following the interaction.  It also includes waiting impatiently for the other to get done, walking out on discussions, blanking or ignoring the other, maintaining an icy distance or living in stony silence.

Despite all this bad news, Gottmann points out that the major feature that distinguishes relationship ‘masters’ from relationship ‘disasters’ is their ability to repair the interaction.  This is where apology and forgiveness come into play and where relationships that are based on strong friendship, shared meaning and purpose are more likely to succeed and recover.

So, if you hear the hooves of one of those apocalyptic stallions charging through your living room, be warned.  It might be time to pull out your conflict toolbox and take a good, hard look at its contents and start on the repairs.  Becoming a relationship ‘master’ is hard work but picking up the pieces after the four horsemen have passed through your life, might cost you years.

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Ever found yourself in front of a store in the early weeks of a new year faced with a sign reading: Closed for Stocktaking?  Annoying as it is, part of me admires the process happening behind the locked doors – a kind of counting your chickens and getting your house in order that seems both simple and wholesome and that has in essence, despite today’s electronic scanners, hardly changed over centuries.  The process of stocktaking enables businesses to get more than a general overview of where they stand.  It allows them to see what is good and what is amiss on their shelves or behind their computer screens and on the basis of that, to adjust, correct and fine-tune with a view to optimizing  business in the year ahead.  In short, stocktaking is the essential groundwork for change, for setting goals and for realising potential.

At a personal level, the end of one year and the beginning of the next, offers us all a wonderful opportunity to reassess our values, to look more closely at the problems that beset us and to align the wheels of change for our future growth.  Making personal stocktaking an annual event to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to adjust the path on which you are travelling is a hallmark of mindful living.

From a conflict management point of view, what are the factors involved in personal stocktaking?  The following 10 questions will give you a good idea of how you stand in your management of interpersonal conflict be it in the workplace or in private relationships:


So, instead of the ubiquitous,  off-the-cuff New Year’s Resolutions, why not close for personal stocktaking this year?  Take half a day to assess where you stand as regards conflict management and make whatever adjustments are necessary to ensure that at the end of 2012 you are able to add conflict competence to your list of personal achievements and satisfying personal relationships to your capital gain.  

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Christmas like no other holiday, raises the bar when it comes to expectations.  Unfortunately, it also often ends for so many of us as the season of disappointment and unmet expectations.

Whether it be young children drawing up their wish-lists or adults racing through the retail industry’s tinsel-trends to find the perfect gift for a loved one or the obligatory gift for the not-so-loved, we all buy into the expectation that by jumping onto the Christmas bandwagon we stand in line for peace, harmony, love and good cheer.  How disappointing then when we find ourselves faced with grumpy relatives, bickering children, ungrateful recipients of our bestowals and gifts that are not what we wished for or that don’t have the desired effect.  Little wonder that for conflict practitioners the world over, Christmas is the holiday in which families and relationships experience the highest tensions and conflicts despite (or because of) all of our seasonal expectations to the contrary.

So how do we turn the holiday period around and get our share of good cheer despite such sobering conflict statistics?   How do we manage Christmas so as to come out of it feeling some of the love, peace and harmony? The secret is to give the truly personal gift – the giving of oneself instead of or in addition to the wrapped offering under the tree.  Any or all of the five gifts below will go a long way in making this holiday season wonderful and memorable and in the process, benefit not only the recipient but also the giver:

  1.  Step back and let conflict pass you by this holiday season.   Ask yourself whether the irritations of the day will matter in a week, a month or a year and create distance to the small irritations that so easily trip us up.  If visualisation is your thing, take a bird’s eye view of your festive setting and distance yourself mentally from the conflict encounter.  Take “time-out” in whatever way works for you – it’s often all we need to deal with tricky situations more constructively.  By engaging with conflict you become part of the problem; by stepping back you become part of the solution.
  2. Listen:  there is no greater gift than being well and truly listened to.  If you want to be remembered as someone  special this Christmas  – listen to those around you.  Whether it is your wife complaining that she’s been on her feet all day or your father-in-law discussing the markets, listen consciously, ask questions that show your interest and allow them the space to feel heard and understood.  Deep listening creates an expectation of understanding and a true willingness to reciprocate. In addition, the enormous physiological benefits of feeling listened to,  calms waters and creates natural harmony.
  3. Speak for yourself:  preface your statements by using the “I” word and only speak about how things make you feel.  If you assume to know what the other is thinking or feeling without them telling you so expressly, you’re way off track and heading for trouble.    Make a gift of inviting and opening up discussion by allowing others the space to speak about their own feelings or thoughts and observe how your conversational skills put everyone into a feel-good space.
  4. Change your perspective by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.   Allowing yourself to imagine the unbridled excitement of a child or the exhaustion of a parent takes the edge off any irritation at their behaviour that you might otherwise feel is inappropriate for the season.  Walking in someone else’s shoes is a sure way to soften our expectations and to open the door to compassion.
  5. Give the gifts of acknowledgement and gratitude. Say thank you for all you receive – not only physical gifts but the effort that has gone into preparations, the wonderful meal that has been laid out, the time that has been spent searching for a gift or the effort that someone has taken to be with you on this day.  And remember to say thank you for the gifts of companionship, sharing, support and love that are made to us by our friends and family throughout the year – acknowledging these everyday acts takes your connection to an even deeper level.

And if, despite our best efforts, we do fall prey to holiday conflict, remember the value of a well constructed apology and the power of forgiveness and make this holiday season one in which we surprise ourselves and those around us by meeting their deep-seated needs for connectedness, compassion, understanding and respect in a way that exceeds all expectations.

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“To forgive is not just to be altruistic, it is the best form of self-interest”  Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Like any journey worth the trouble, the first step towards forgiveness is the most difficult.   Once started, it becomes easier if we take it one step at a time and allow ourselves a margin of error, of occasionally re-tracing our steps and of stopping for breath and replenishment.    This seven-step plan is an outline for a forgiveness process that I have used successfully with clients.

  1. The first step is a commitment to ourselves and to our healing.  Forgiveness is about you and for you and is exclusively your choice to  make. Remind yourself that it is not about condoning what has happened or reconciling with the offender. It is a readiness to commit to a new life, free of the burden of unforgiveness.
  2. The second step in the process is to return to the narrative of the harm done to you, to describe it and how it has affected you and your life.  This can be in a piece of writing to yourself or can be told to someone in your trust.  It might also be beneficial at this stage to tell your confidante or to write down to yourself that this act of telling the grievance story is part of your process of forgiveness.
  3. The third step is to write down as many reasons as you can for NOT forgiving.  Then go on to record in as much detail as possible how holding onto unforgiveness is affecting your life.  Add to this a list of your unmet expectations as a result of the harm done to you and follow this up by recording what it costs you to hold onto these expectations.
  4. Now consciously address the grievance and allocate it a resting place in your past.  This means giving up all dreams of a better or a different past.  It sounds easy enough but unforgivers are firmly committed to the “if only” dialogue.   Bann all such thoughts and expressions from your discourse.  The past is as it stands.  No amount of wishful thinking is going to change it.
  5. Next, think of times in your life in which you have wronged, hurt or disappointed others and remind yourself that we are all human and subject to errors and failures.  It is easier to forgive, when we call to mind our own fallibility and when we acknowledge our own weakness and shadows.
  6. Think of new ways of meeting your needs for recognition, love, respect and whatever else you feel has been lost through disappointed expectations and wounding and turn your creative attention and your power towards filling these gaps in your life as you would want to see them filled.
  7. Create a cleansing ritual for your forgiveness.  This could include:  burying the unforgiveness that you have been holding onto and putting it to rest together with an item however small, which symbolises the painful past; gathering and burning your forgiveness writings and so setting free the negative and dark thoughts that have held you; clearing out any remnants of the past that symbolise the unforgivness and your pain; inviting a confidante to share these rituals acts with you.

Forgiveness is about changing your perspective and in so-doing, gaining enormous personal power.  It is about taking responsibility for your happiness and not leaving it squarely in the hands of someone who has hurt or offended you.  Forgiveness is about living your best life not only in the face of difficulties but because of the unique chance of growth and personal development that overcoming difficulties bring with them.

Forgiveness is about re-writing the grievance narrative to include the life-changing power of your act of forgiveness and the new pathways to joy that forgiveness holds for you.

Need anything more to convince you to forgive?

Next week:  Forgiving oneself.


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I have often puzzled over reports of people who have survived years of inhuman hardship at the hands of others yet  have lived the rest of their lives to the full, have built homes and families and found joy and pleasure in abundance. And then there are those who having experienced the same, have spent their lives in misery, bitterness and hostile regret, blaming and revisiting the injury time and again,  burning up their life-force in  a battle with dark and destructive emotions.

The question to myself has always been – which of the two would I be, if I had walked in their shoes?  Where lies the source of this life-affirming energy in the face of such misfortune? And why do many of us tend instead to build an altar to the suffering and in so doing, to entrench it firmly into our lives?

The key to coming out at the other end of much of what human beings do to each other is forgiveness.  I don’t mean the popular admonishment to “move on” or to “get over it”, nor the good fortune of a cheerful disposition or a thick skin but rather, a deep understanding of the meaning and pathways to forgiveness that allows us to leave even the greatest misfortune behind us and despite our suffering, to live well, fully and joyfully.

Is this a matter of spiritual grace, a survival skill or a technique for stress release and if so, why are we so resistant to exploring its potential for restoring balance in our lives?

The reason for our reluctance to forgive lies in the misconception that forgiveness is a sign of weakness, that it requires us to forget what we have experienced, to acknowledge that our suffering was in some way deserved, to relinquish our right to justice and retribution for the wrongs against us, to condone our tormentor’s actions and to let them off the hook.   We are afraid that through forgiveness, we will forgo the recognition of our status as victims of another’s making in the hope that this will bring us relief and satisfy our longing and need to be heard and acknowledged.   This is why many of us hold onto our injuries so stubbornly, revisiting the story they tell time and again and living in a dark state of unforgivness where there is no peace and no joy and where we continue to suffer often years after the actual event.

The truth is that forgiveness does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting, denying or reconciling with our offenders.

Forgiveness in fact is a voluntary and conscious choice.   Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation nor does it require either the presence of or communication with our offenders for it to be effective.  Forgiveness is a personal choice to view one’s life and the events of one’s life differently, it is the decision to acknowledge and then to let go of the injuries caused and to allow compassion to lead us towards a lighter and more joyful form of living.

As is to be expected, a conflict tool as powerful as forgiveness does not come as a “quick-fix”  but generally means a long and challenging process that requires great courage, self-awareness and personal insight as well as the understanding that healing comes from within only through letting go of dark and emotionally debilitating experiences.

Set against the consequences of a lifetime engaged in active unforgiveness, it is a journey well worth the taking – as much for our emotional and physical wellbeing as for the lives of those that we touch along the way.

More next week on how to prepare for forgiveness and the skills we need to see it through.




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