Last weekend, I had a goodbye conversation. It followed this 6-step form, created by Steve Bearman of Interchange Counseling Institute. It was a really powerful framing for this communication that needed to happen.
Steps 2 and 3 of that process are apologizing and forgiving, which was interesting for me. As part of learning to embody the new culture we’re building with the Living Room Context (LRC; learn more here and here) I’ve been trying to live by a series of commitments and assumptions. One of these is:
I commit to offering no praise, no blame, and no apologies; and to reveal, acknowledge, and appreciate instead.
My friend Sean (who was actually spending the entire rest of the weekend at an Interchange workshop) was filling a counselor role and helping to hold the context for us. He and I have talked at length about the LRC and how I’m exploring communicating without apologies, so when we got to those steps, we agreed that it would make sense to take a moment to unpack those terms and figure out (a) what value was in each step and (b) what aspect of them felt incongruous with my mindset.
An apology, we teased out, has three parts:
Part 1 is the heavy part, where you say “I hurt you, and I own that.” Impact is important, despite it being undervalued in many contexts: consider “It’s the thought that counts”. Even though you didn’t intend to step on someone’s toe (literally or figuratively) it still hurts, and it’ll only hurt more if you try to minimize that. Intent isn’t magic.
Part 2 is saying you care. It’s where you communicate that it matters to you that you had a negative impact, and that you therefore want to fix that aspect of your patterns or whatever caused it. This part is what makes repeat apologies for the same thing feel awkward and insincere.
Part 3… well, that’s what the next section is about.
I want to tell a brief story. It takes place at the Household as Ecology, the LRC-focused intentional community house I lived in this summer. Jean is the owner of the house and one of the key people behind starting the LRC originally. This experience was a huge learning moment for me.
I was in the kitchen, and Jean had pointed out some way in which I’d left the system of the kitchen in relative chaos. I think I left a dirty utensil on the counter or something. I became defensive and started justifying my behaviour. She listened patiently, but I found myself feeling unsatisfied with her response. Finally, I cried out, in mock-agony, “FORGIVE ME!”
“No!” she responded with equal energy.
We both burst out laughing.
I want to pause and recognize that that story might be really confusing if you don’t have an appreciation for the context we’re operating in. Taken, quite literally, out of context, I can appreciate that that exchange might sound unpleasant, and confusing that it would end in laughter. (I’m curious, actually, if this is the case, and would love to hear from you in the comments how you understood it.)
I’m going to try to help make sense of it. What happened here was that even though Jean wasn’t judging me, I felt judged, and was trying to earn her approval again. I wanted to be absolved. Exculpated. Forgiven. But she couldn’t do that. To absolve someone is “to make them free from guilt, responsibility, etc.”… but to the extent that there was guilt, it was entirely inside me. And the responsibility? That’s there whether Jean notices what I’ve done or not. I remain responsible for what I’d done, and response-able to fix the current problem and change my future behaviour.
There was also a sense in which the dynamic of “if I forgive you, you’ll just do it again” applies. When this statement is said with resent, it’s painful, but Jean communicated this (implicitly, as I recall) with care and compassion and a sense of wanting the system to become better for everyone, and of wanting me to grow. Done in this way, it felt like a firmly communicated boundary, and the refusal to “forgive” felt like a commitment to continue giving me the feedback that I need. That I crave, even when it hurts.
From my experience, it’s possible to create a collaborative culture where forgiveness is superfluous. Where you have the impact that you have, and the other person may reasonably trust you less as a result, but they aren’t judging you or harboring any resentments in the first place, so this becomes meaningless.
During the conversation last weekend, what I tried doing instead of forgiveness (although I did try on that language, just for fun) was to communicate that I wasn’t holding any resentment or grudge: that I was not going to carry anger or judgement into the future. This is my default way of operating, and it felt really good to bring up the specific instances that hurt and to offer my understanding and compassion there.
The article linked at the top, that was providing the framework for our discussion, remarks the following:
Forgiveness comes from having compassion toward them and being able to imagine how, when everything is taken into account, their behavior was somehow constrained to be what it was.
When you take a systems-oriented perspective on things (rather than being caught up in a sense of entitlement for things being a certain way) this becomes the default model for everything. And so everything is already forgiven, to the extent that that’s possible.
All in all, this form facilitated us connecting and reaching a place of mutual understanding in a way that otherwise probably would simply not have happened. We had, in fact, tried to fix things before. What allowed us to get through this time was:
There was something about it being the end, that made it so we weren’t even trying to fix things. This helped give us the space to be honest and open, which in turn brought way more reconciliation than we thought was possible at that point.
I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to do this, and that the others—both the facilitator and the person I was saying goodbye to—are adept, open communicators. This is what enabled us to go so deep and ask questions like “what are we intending to get out of this apologizing step?” and “what does it mean to forgive someone?”
Of course, my interpretation isn’t the only one. If you understand apologies or forgiveness in some other way, I’d be grateful to hear from you in the comments.
I'm Malcolm Ocean.
I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.