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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Apologies, Forgiveness, and the Art of Conflict

Disclaimer:  The below are my opinions.  I don't claim to be a relationship "expert" by any means.  These are my suggestions based on my observations.  And while I'm fully aware that I'm flawed and my conclusions may also be flawed, I am confident enough in their foundations that I feel I can share them without giving terrible advice.

The messy business of social interaction

Now with that out of the way, let's get right into it.  Social interactions can be pretty complex.  While we're all blessed with an intuitive "feel" for them (to varying degrees), if you were to look at all the factors that go into even a simple argument about what to watch on TV, you'd find a signification number of factors, such as:

  • watching preferences
  • recently watched content
  • current mood 
  • current disposition toward the other person
  • who chose last
  • who chose the last X times over the last few weeks
  • previous arguments over what to watch
  • the proposed content to watch
  • the day of the week
  • the time
Now take all those factors and realize that many of those have pairs representing the factor's value for either side such as your current mood and their current mood.  And even some of those factors have their factors.  For instance, previous arguments over what to watch will have factors such as perception of the argument and what they remember about those arguments. 

It's all about perspective

Simply put, due to a combination of feeling intuitive and having a lot of impacting factors, it's very easy for people to misunderstand the other person.  For example, someone may think they know all the factors influencing someone's words or behavior, but in fact could be way off because there's factors they aren't even aware of or hadn't considered.  

A good example of this is some school bullies.  I'd say most aren't liked alot at school.  They can be mean spirited and act like the most vile person on the face of the earth.  So other children, particularly the ones the bully is picking on, believes the bully deserves full retribution since not only do they have no redeeming qualities, they are just despicable human beings.  Yet, what they might not see is that this bully's home life is magnitudes worse.   They could be getting abused at home and/or their family could be thoroughly dysfunctional.  Of course not all bullies are victims like that and in any case these factors definitely do not justify their reprehensible behavior.

However, if other children knew the situation at home, they might not consider this person to be the worst person imaginable.  Heck, they might even try to help the bully out.  The point is there were factors they didn't consider when they originally determined this bully is the scum of the earth and fully deserving of the worst types of punishment.  

So when it comes to forgiveness, apologies, and the art of conflict it's important to note that many of the disconnects in these areas come from a lack of perspective.  Again, lack of perspective by one party doesn't necessarily justify poor behavior by the other.  However it can impact the quality and the resolution of these three key areas of social interaction.

Why these three?  Because conflict, and its two primary reactions apology and forgiveness, generate the most drama, strife and misunderstandings.  So I feel they're the most important.  We'll work our way backwards through these, starting off with the reactions apology and forgiveness, then get to the art of conflict.

We all need forgiveness

Forgiveness is easily the most talked about of the three and rightfully so since it's the most powerful.  The power of grace fueled forgiveness shouldn't be underestimated.  Funny thing is, forgiveness is also the hardest to do out of the three.  I mean what's more grating? Getting into an argument, having to apologize for a perceived wrong doing, or forgiving someone of wrong done against you - even when they don't even think they did anything wrong and won't apologize?  It's definitely the last for me.  As 10th Avenue North sings, "Father, give me grace to forgive them because I feel like the one that's losing".  I for one don't like feeling weak by allowing someone to "get away" with doing wrong things against me.  

Why is forgiveness, true forgiveness, so powerful?  Because holding grudges and resentment is absolutely toxic to a soul.  It doesn't even matter how "right" someone may be in the situation.  Holding long term negative feelings like this will poison a person and can lead them to become a decrepit, jaded individual who's no better than the person they've resented.  

So while you may feel like you're losing by "letting go" and letting them get away with it, particularly with an unrepentant person, you're missing a couple important pieces.  First, it's really not your position to pay anyone in kind for the wrong doings they've committed against you.  That's God's job.  And second, just because you aren't the one "getting back" at them, doesn't mean they're "getting away" with it.  Remember that whole part about not knowing all the factors?  Consider that God is always working in their lives, so He may be doing something with them that you can't even see.  So from that perspective, no one truly gets away with anything.

It's important to note this because when it comes to forgiveness, people may end up practicing Fauxgiveness instead.  Fauxgiveness simply means you indicate that you forgive them, out loud or even to yourself privately, but deep down you still harbor resentment toward them or that you've "forgiven them as far as you'll ever forgive them"..aka a partial forgiveness.  You've never truly forgiven them of their transgressions.   I cannot stress enough how this is even worse than simply refusing to forgive altogether.  The danger with fauxgiveness is that you claim to have forgiven, all the while that resentment and grudge continues to poison your soul and you may not even realize it since you feel that you've done "enough" forgiving.

I'll say this as plain as possible:  Forgiveness needs to be complete and unconditional.  Anything less than that and you risk poisoning your own soul by holding on that resentment.  

Now there's one aspect I want to talk about when it comes to forgiveness.  It's important to understand that while you're supposed to completely and unconditionally forgive them, it does not mean you have to be a perpetual victim of someone's abhorrent behavior.  You can forgive someone of their wrong doing, but that does not mean you have to let them do the same thing to you again in the future.  You can forgive, but also take measures to prevent the behavior from happening again.  Like if you loan a friend some money and they don't pay it back.  You can forgive them of their debt, but that doesn't mean you have to lend them money again (Now if you did, that would be an additional extension of grace on your part that goes beyond the act of forgiveness).  God has given us the ability to learn from our past experiences, which would include situations where someone did something bad to us.   

I also want to bring up "forgive and forget".  Someone might take the idea to mean that you forgive the offense, forget about it, allowing you to once again get taken advantage of again in the future since you've forgotten it.  That's not the forget they're talking about.  The forget, in this case, refers to not using the incident as "ammunition" for blame later on.  To not dwell on the incident.  What it does't mean is to wipe your memory of this person's wrong doing.  So when your friend asks for money again, promising this time to pay it back, it's ok to allow his precedent of not being trustworthy in satisfying his debt obligations toward you to impact your decision.

So I guess to sum it up, when it comes to forgiveness, it needs to be absolute and unconditional.  No strings attached.  No using it as ammunition for blame in the future.  You can use the incident to help guide you in the future, but it shouldn't be dwelled upon, particularly in a negative light.

Oh and one more thing.  You should never expect forgiveness from another.  While yes, that person should indeed forgive, you as the potential forgivee are in no position to demand forgiveness.  Even more, you should not hold resentment against someone that refuses to forgive you.  Instead, there should be sincere sympathy for the person that's struggling to let go of your wrong doing.  Grace can be asked for, but it can never be demanded nor expected.

Repentance - the only real Apology

On the flip side of wrong doing, you have the perpetrator of the wrong deed.  And like forgiveness, repentance, the turning away from wrong doings, is pretty powerful.  And like unforgiveness, the lack of repentance, is a self harming act.  On top of that, however, repentance has an additional, but very important, caveat.  This caveat is you must be truly repentant of all your sins before entering Heaven.  Therefore, if you're unrepentant of your sins, you will not get into Heaven.  That's a hard pill to swallow, isn't it?  But that's what it means to "truly confess" your sins to the Lord.  You're supposed to not only recognize your evil deeds, but turn away from them as well.

That's one reason why repentance is so important: your soul's eternity is at stake.  Yet, when it comes to social interactions and repentance I'm not trying to say you'll burn in hell if you don't repent.  I'm just pointing out there's a lot of emphasis and value placed on true apologies, aka repentance, in the Bible.  So while forgiveness is the ultimate expression of grace, repentance is the ultimate expression of humility and submission, two things that are important in a godly life.  

As with forgiveness, apologies have their own brand of "fakeness" or fauxpologies.  And just how partial forgiveness can be worse for a person than not forgiving at all, fauxpologies are often worse than if the person refused to sincerely apologize in the first place.  Because a fauxpology typically has two nasty components embedded into it:  
  • The person doesn't really have any interest in truly apologizing
  • The person demonstrates they really don't care for the other person's feelings on the matter.  
Fauxpologies are often used as a way to escape an uncomfortable conversation one is having with someone else who's bringing up an issue they have with them.  Has this ever happened to you?  You bring up an issue you find important with someone and their response is, "I'm sorry you feel that way".  This fauxpology in turn makes you more upset and so when you continue they say something like "What do you want from me!? I apologized ok?!".   But the problem is, they didn't really.  They just wanted you to shut up already.  

An apology, in my opinion, should only be offered when one really is sorry for what they've done and they truly believe that in their heart.  And not because they're being called out, but they must truly believe that what they did is wrong.  If they don't, then don't insult the person with a fauxpology.  People can usually tell when someone is being disingenuous towards them in an apology.  

Of course, much like how one should never demand or expect forgiveness, one should never demand or expect an apology.  For starters, you can't control how someone feels.  If you've plead your case in hopes that they will see it from your perspective and they still refuse, that's as far as you should go.  If you demand an apology, chances are you're going to get a fauxpology.  Remember:  people are prideful and stubborn.  And the last thing many folks will do is openly admit they're wrong.  You'd have better luck knocking over a brick wall by screaming at it.  One thing also to keep in mind is that even if someone does not immediately, or ever, apologize, it does not necessarily mean they're not taking what you said to heart.  Like I said, some people are just too proud to fully submit in their wrong doings.  And while that is a problem, it's not really your problem.  That's between them and the Lord.  However, I recommend paying attention to their actions and you might see a positive change in their behavior that reflects the grievance you had with them.  And while that's not an open expression of repentance, you can get some comfort realizing that your feelings and thoughts were indeed considered genuinely.

Now, there is one aspect of apologies that requires a bit more granulation.  Often times when someone perceives a wrong doing by someone else, there's usually an explanation for the wrong doing.  Not necessarily a justification, but as mentioned before, there's bound to be factors unseen from the person accusing someone of wrong that may need to be expressed.  Or, there's also the case where you may genuinely sorry for part of something you did, but not all of it.  For example, let's say you're objecting to something your friend says to you.  It, in fact, makes you a little angry.  So you object, respectfully at first.  Maybe your tone gets a little heated, but you're in control.  But your friend makes a very snide, demeaning comment about your objection, so you in turn start shouting loudly and call them some terrible names that ends up hurting them.

Let's not get into who's right or who's wrong in this scenario as it's not relevant to the point.  We're looking at your reaction.  It's important to first make sure you apologize for exactly what you're sorry about, which in this case would be calling your friend a name and losing control by shouting loudly.  You do not, however, feel you should apologize for all of your actions, such as  your initial objections because you believe them to be valid and deserve to be addressed maturely.  It's very important to separate what you're sorry for and what you're not.  The problem here is how you handle your apology particularly if you still feel the need to discuss your original issue.  If you apolozie first and then tack on your issue right after, your apology may come off as a fauxpology since you went into nagging at the person right after you apologized.  It's better to apologize first, wait for a response, and then add on something like "I still would like to talk about my original issue".  So here's a short list of things not to do in a sincere apology:
  • As mentioned, if you still have some valid grievance to discuss, do not immediately go into it after apologizing.  Give the person a chance to respond first.
  • If your wrong doing was a result of poor handling on your part based on something wrong they did to you, do not immediately begin explaining why you did what you did.  This will look like justification for your wrong doing (even if you say that's not what you're trying to do).  Instead, start with the apology, indicate how you did not like that particular thing they did followed by indicating that it's no excuse for your own bad reaction and once again reiterate that you're sorry.  
  • Your apology should never blame the action your apologizing for on the other person.  An example of this would be "I'm sorry I hit you, but you were pissing me off!"
  • You should never apologize for someone else's perception aka "I'm sorry you feel that way" or "I'm sorry you think I'm being mean".  By doing so, not only are you not apologizing for your behavior, you're actually apologizing for theirs instead.
  • Never apologize with hyberbole (aka exaggerating the other person's grievances to extremes).  It comes off as an accusation against the other person.  For example if someone brings up a grievance about you making a snide, hurtful comment and your response is, "I'm sorry I'm just a big screw up!" or "I'm sorry I can't be as perfect as you!", you're essentially putting extreme accusations in the other person's mouth, which is a roundabout way of accusing them of being extreme.  It's not sincere and will be seen as a fauxpology.
As you can see, I'm spending a little more time on fauxpologies just because they're quite common these days.  But let me reiterate that this type of apology is destructive behavior.  It pulls apart rather than stitches back together.  And while someone should never withhold forgiveness even in the face of a fauxpology, that doesn't mean that the fauxpology itself won't leave lasting damage.  It's one thing to be unrepentant.  It's another to be unrepentant and tell the other person how much you don't value their feelings and opinions.  That's a killer.

As for advice for those on the receiving end of a fauxpology, this is a hard one for me because getting infuriated over it will not do any good.  Once you've received the fauxpology, that's typically all you're going to get.  Any further dialog, especially about the fauxpology itself, is usually pointless.  On the other side though, it'd be remiss if you simply accept it since that sends a signal that you're fine with receiving fauxpologies (which I believe no one should be ok with it).   I think there's a decent middle ground where you receive the fauxpology, but you don't get mad.  Instead, you realize there's not much else you can do, so express your disappointment with their choice in offering an insincere apologgy, but indicate that you'll leave it at that.  That way, you're able to tell them that you're not buying it even if you give them what they usually want out of a fauxpology: to be left alone (or least for you to stop pestering them).  

The Art of Conflict - steering toward remedy instead of destruction

You can consider the art of conflict a dance through a minefield where one wrong move can blow everything up in your face.  It's not necessarily about stepping lightly since even the lightest steps can cause a mine to blow.  It's more about stepping confidently along the inbetween spaces that allow you to get your points across, genuinely listen to the other person, offer an apology and grant forgiveness (privately in some cases).  Below are some points I try to keep in mind when getting into a social conflict.  I'm far from perfect in following these, but they are things I keep in mind and want to follow as much as I can.
  • No name calling.  It doesn't matter if the other person is indeed acting totally insane, calling them a crazy ****** is still not good.  First, it's wrong to do it and second, it will genuinely shut down everything following it as the conversation has suddenly changed from the actual grieving to you being a jerk for calling them a name.  
  • No swearing.  I don't know about you, but whenever I do swear in an argument, I can feel myself losing control bit by bit.  Swearing during moments of intense emotion has a habit of letting that emotion run wild.  On top of that, it as well takes focus off of the issue at hand as now the issue is your swearing.
  • No physical violence.  This one's a no brainer.  No amount of frustration or anger is ever enough to justify physical violence directed at a person or even in a person's vicinity.  Even if you don't harm someone directly, if you're smashing things around them it will send them the signal that you can't control yourself when you're angry.  And they'll start to question whether or not you'll direct that anger towards them next time.
  • No screaming.  This one needs clarification.  Raising your voice is part of arguing, in my opinion, but screaming at the top of your lungs can have the same effect that swearing does - it can loosen your control.  
  • Never lose conrol.  Obvious one.  Once you've lost control of yourself, you've lost any chance of remedying the situation.  Stay in control.  You can still be in control when you're angry.  You can still be in control when you raise your voice, but if you go over the line and are in a blind flurry of raw emotional venting, there's nothing you can do immediately afterward to fix the problem.  And usually, the only chance you have is a sincere apology on your part.
  • Disagree, but do not mock.  You're bound to have disagreements with someone whose opinion doesn't seem very well thought out or you have a tough time fathoming how they could come to such an ill gotten conclusion.  It's very easy in those times to don an air superiority and show how dumb their opinion is.  Don't do it.  Much like calling someone a name, this can shut down the conversation. Insinuating someone is stupid because of an opinion you find stupid will only build resentment toward you.  They're not going to listen to anything else and instead will most likely look for ways to in turn make you feel stupid.  Instead, find ways to respectfully disagree with their opinion by explaining your side of the disagreement.  If you find flaws in their opinion that you feel you must address, ask a question regarding that flaw that gives them the opportunity to explain.  In a number of cases, you may find out that they have a reasonable answer to a glaring flaw you hadn't considered.
  • Never say "you're wrong".  Again this is another of those things that will just turn the other person.  They state something that you find to be wrong, or wrong thinking, and you tell them flat out that it's wrong and wrong thinking.  Just bypass saying the words and move right into your counter argument, respectfully of course.  There are several less abrasive phrases that can be used to lead into your response.  Use those instead.  "You're wrong" just has too much finality to allow further conversation growth. 
  • Do not seek a "win".  Going on until the other person admits defeat usually doesn't end up that way.  If you're someone that requires someone else to admit their guilt, admit you're right, or what not you've probably been continuously disappointed in the past when someone absolutely refuses to admit you're right, or they're wrong, even when there's overwhelming evidence proving your side.  Remember, people are prideful, insecure, and stubborn.  Get your point across as best as you can, but expect nothing more than them listening.
  • Articulate, but don't lecture.  This one's a tough one for me.  I like to be articulate, but when I explain things, I feel my tone can sound like some teacher trying to explain something new to their students.  No one likes being lectured.  So if your explanations are taking too long because they're too detailed, you might consider breaking them apart or condensing them to something more amiably consumable by the other person.  
  • Remember the goal.  Above all else, remember the goal in the conflict.  To resolve it.  And you can't resolve anything if the other person is no longer receptive toward you.  Of course, you don't want to be a weakling walking on egg shells too afraid to take any steps.   But you also don't want to be someone that is more concerned with "scoring points" or "winning" than they are actually healing the rift.  
Anyway, this is a super long post that I probably should have divided up into three pieces.  Yet, I think having them together like this ties it altogether.  There's an art to forgiveness, apologies, and conflict.  And treating them like an art you strive to perfect is a goal Jesus wants us to undertake.  So to sum it up in three short phrases:

Forgiveness must be absolute and unconditional.  Apologies must be truly sincere.  And you should always seek real resolution to conflict.  I hope this helps you as much as it does me.  God Bless.