Forgiveness liberates the soul, eliminates fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.” Nelson Mandela

I returned today from a 4-day workshop, “Mon Leadership Incarné“, in which I accompanied a group of women to discover themselves and their leadership, through work on the body, cognition, emotions but also the spirit, in immersion in nature.

During the workshop each participant explores herself, in relation to her own roles and the organisations and communities to which she belongs, in connection with the external context. The aim is to be able to connect to her source of energy, how it manifests itself in the world (behaviours) and the impacts she actually produces, in order to work on her empowerment.

The lab starts with a reflection on one’s professional and personal history, on the motivations behind the ups and downs, and continues with work on several levels (body, spirit, emotions), on one’s present and on how one manages to take one’s leadership more or less effectively. An opening on the future is then proposed through a very deep exercise of discernment around a question, a problem, a situation, a decision that the person has to take, ending with a day of grounding through a kit of different tools. With regard to this group of women, what struck me about this workshop was the emergence of a common issue, which I feel is very close to me personally at the moment, the subject of forgiveness.

One of the participants, whom I will call Sara, told the following story during the first sessions of the workshop, dedicated to the re-reading of the past starting from the present. About five years ago her organisation decided on a significant transformation of its governance and processes, which impacted her role not necessarily in the direction she had hoped, pushing her to change country, have to learn a new language and take on responsibilities she did not necessarily consider in her development trajectory. She adapted to the demands at the time and is now in a situation she enjoys, doing activities that make her feel aligned with both her organisational and personal purpose. During the workshop, in particular during this first phase of review, something from the past resurfaced and she realised that it is as if a knot of resentment and rumination accompanied her and was still present for her, preventing her from feeling fully satisfied, fulfilled and able to use her full potential. The important insight she had is that this knot concerns the change in the past, not so much in its content and consequences for her, but in the way it was handled by her boss at the time. Sara’s problem is that she feels that the communication of this change was done in a violent, bureaucratic way, without any empathy or respect for the consequences it would have on her personal and professional life. A communication that took place in a meagre, quick way, with no possibility of reply; with not much room for negotiation: what she would have liked was to be heard by her manager, to be able to at least tell her how heavy the decision taken was for her. If we analyse this story there are some key elements that emerge:

– The fact of not being able to find a space for dialogue in the past produces in Sara a resentment that does not go away, a rumination that continues over the years; I think that many and many of us will be able to recognise this feeling: we relive our anger by thinking back to that thing that someone did causing our suffering.

– Time has not healed anything, indeed in the present moment the wound is reopened and the pain felt is intact, the burden continues to be present and carried;

– The pain came, in the past, from the perceived lack of empathy with the decision that had been made (much less from the decision itself, which turned out to be good for Sara). No attempt at dialogue was undertaken, Sara was very angry and sad about this behaviour to the extent that she did not consider opening a space for conversation with her manager;

– Her judgement on how she was treated in the past did not change, the behaviour of the person in charge is still experienced as unjust; Sara does not justify what happened, does not deny its seriousness or minimise it;

During the workshop Sara had a very powerful insight into the fact that this past episode is preventing her in the present from taking pleasure in taking leadership in her current role. Having had a negative role model she fears repeating mistakes and is unable to take full ownership of her role, which now actually requires her to feel responsibility, to inspire, to feel connected to others. During one of the debriefing moments the group suggested the word “forgiveness” and her face lit up. Has the process of “letting go” begun?

Forgiveness starts with a decision to process anger towards another person who has deliberately done something unjust or harmful against us. To say that it starts with a decision is not to say that it is only cognitive. Sara had already tried rationally to see the reasons for her manager’s actions and to tell herself that it was not serious after all. What had not happened until now was the passage through what in U-theory is the opening of the heart, which is essential for “letting go” to take place.

Forgiveness does not mean denying or worse ending up approving or excusing what has been done to us, which will always remain, the past cannot be changed. Instead, it means recognising and accepting that someone has caused us pain, suffering, produced a wound. And that we can let go of this pain, suffering, wound, because the weight we are carrying invades our space of creativity, vitality, energy.

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation, indeed this idea can rightly distance us from forgiving. For the space of reconciliation to open up, the other party must also recognise that he or she has hurt us; reconciliation is sometimes not possible, the other person may be dead (I am thinking of forgiving family situations that have caused us wounds that are difficult to heal) or may not have changed and still be a threat to us.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, means opening up a space to be able to bring the other party inside, a space of empathy in which, without apologizing, we are able to transform the negative feelings we have experienced, letting go of the burden we have carried, accepting to run the risk that in relationships we can make mistakes.

Sara couldn’t give herself permission to take her leadership in her current role. I don’t know what she will do in the near future, although her clear intention coming out of the workshop is to have a clarifying conversation, not necessarily a reconciling one, (forgiveness can be ‘one way’) to let go of the past, making way for a future in which she and the people around her can regenerate their relationships, allowing life to flow again within the group.