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Practicing Forgiveness at Work

Forgiveness sets one free from the anguish that is otherwise kept alive through memory.

Jan 11, 2017

Wounded by words, burned by betrayal, or left in the lurch? We’ve all been wronged in the workplace at one time or another. Even after the initial sting is gone, the memory may live on and continue to cause distress, both mentally and physically.

When Psychologist Kathleen Lawler Row asked subjects to recount past incidents that offended them, she found that their blood pressures spiked and their heart rates quickened. Some people continued in that altered state much longer than others, regardless of the seriousness of the offense.

The difference? The ability to forgive. Forgiveness sets one free from the anguish that is otherwise kept alive through memory, says Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his opposition to South African apartheid.

In fact, some psychologists believe forgiveness evolved as a way to overcome pain and alleviate suffering. A 2016 study found that forgiveness in the workplace promotes good health, well-being, and productivity, while unforgiving has been tied to loneliness, stress and other negative physical symptoms.

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning the action. “Forgiveness is for you and no one else,” writes Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. “In forgiveness you seek the peace and understanding that come from blaming people less after they offend you and taking those offenses less personally.”

In their book, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, Desmond Tutu and his daughter, minister Mpho Tutu, offer four steps to forgiving:

  • Tell the story. To begin the healing process, articulate the situation to a trusted confidante.
  • Name the hurt. The only way to stop the pain is to accept it, name it and feel it fully, says Mpho Tutu. “In so doing, you discover that your pain is part of the great, eternal tapestry of human loss and heartbreak,” she says. “You realize you are not alone in your suffering, that others have experienced and survived what you have experienced, and that you too can survive and know joy and happiness again.” When you grant forgiveness, you see the facts of your situation as part of a larger narrative. “You recognize the story of the one who hurt you, however misguided that person was. It is a story that recognizes our shared humanity,” the Tutus explain.
  • Renew or release the relationship. “Renewing a relationship is not restoring a relationship. We do not go back to where we were before the hurt happened and pretend it never happened,” the father and daughter write in their book. “We create a new relationship out of our suffering, one that is stronger for what we have experienced together. Our renewed relationships are often deeper because we have faced the truth, recognized our shared humanity, and now tell a new story of a relationship transformed.”

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