Long ago, Aristotle said: “The energy of the mind is the essence of life.” Today, there is a great deal of research on the importance of managing our energy for optimal performance in every area of our lives. We know that emotions play a pivotal role in harnessing or depleting mind energy.
One emotional response that is not talked about often enough, in this context, is forgiveness. It is one of the least understood qualities and one of the most difficult to practice. And yet, forgiveness is one of the quickest paths to salvaging wasted energy.
To forgive someone is to waive our right to resentment, anger or another negative reaction. This is not about condoning or excusing actions, but about intentionally deciding to let go of a sense of offense at snubs, ego scuffs, disappointments and other occurrences that pull our strings. Making forgiveness a part of our operating system is a key aspect of emotional intelligence: it is taking ownership of our own emotional reactions.
Forgiveness is not just a “nice to have” quality. There is now scientific evidence that a lack of forgiveness leads to increased stress and anxiety, and chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. One of the pioneers in the field of forgiveness research is Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford. In this provocative and inspiring video, Dr. Luskin makes the most compelling case for practicing forgiveness. It is well worth watching, as is reading his book, Forgive for Good: A PROVEN Prescription for Health and Happiness.
Some fortunate individuals have a natural disposition for forgiveness, just as some are naturally gifted with a sense of humor. For the rest of us, what can we do to make forgiveness a part of our repertoire of behaviors? Here are some tips:
1. Focus on a higher purpose in your life. Long ago, I read a quotation which said: “The size of a man can be measured by the size of the thing that makes him angry.” Resolve to let go of interpersonal abrasions, distress at unwarranted criticism, grudges and other petty vexations that can be a regular occurrence in human interactions. Clearing this emotional mind clutter frees your mental energy to focus on your higher purpose, the worthwhile goals that contribute to your success. What you focus on grows.
2. Take a forgiveness measurement test. Evidence shows that those who are inclined not to forgive are more susceptible to anger, anxiety and other negative emotions. Self-awareness, of course, precedes self-management. To increase your self-awareness in this area, take The Heartland Forgiveness Test which is a free, eighteen-item online questionnaire that measures our disposition to be forgiving. Another free survey is the VIA Survey on Character Strengths which identifies twenty-four character strengths that define what’s best about people. Forgiveness is one of those strengths.
3. Remind yourself frequently of the bottom-line benefits of forgiveness. Not only does forgiveness lead to greater emotional and physical well-being, but experiments have also shown that forgiveness results in greater productivity and an increase in sales. For example, an experiment with financial advisors after the stock market crash of 2000 involved training participants in emotional competence skills and forgiveness, and then tracking the impact of the training on sales and quality of life. Productivity increased by 25 percent, with a corresponding 10 percent increase in sales. In addition, the stress levels and quality of life of participants showed significant positive change.
4. Stop talking about your grievances. If you often feel a need to talk about people and issues that have irked you, consider that every time you repeat the story to others, you reinforce the residual grudges and take a step back in your ability to overcome resentment. Put a limit on the number of people you share these stories with. Better still, declare a personal moratorium on ruminating and complaining about the same issues and see what happens.
5. Help establish a culture of forgiveness. If you are a leader, there are many initiatives you can take to set the right tone when it comes to forgiveness. Encourage the practice of kindness and grace by modeling forgiveness yourself and create a shame-free environment that makes it safe for people to admit to mistakes without the threat of repercussions. Discourage triangulation amongst your team. Triangulation refers to a dysfunction within a team, where team member A complains about team member B to the team leader rather than to team member B directly, so that the team leader is forced to be the go between for the two. Triangulation is a form of corporate infantilism. More often than not, this funneling of information through a third party exacerbates the conflict and does not encourage team members to resolve their issues in a mature manner.
6. Take exit interviews with a grain of salt.
As a leader, you owe it to your people to practice due diligence in all policies and practices that can have an impact on their well-being at work. One such area is the exit interview. While it is a useful tool for companies to gain important information, they can also be used as unfair instruments of revenge by disgruntled or malcontent people. Don’t discount them but don’t accept them blindly either. Use your good judgment and intuition about the people involved and the situations so that you can use the feedback fairly.
7. Practice the best form of revenge. There is a great deal of truth in the old adage that the best revenge is living well. I love this quote from Frank Sinatra: “The best revenge is massive success.” If you are struggling with issues of resentment and past hurts that are derailing you, keep this thought at the forefront of your mind every time you experience negative emotions. Ask yourself, how is my resentful attitude holding me back from living my best life?
Forgiveness helps us function on a higher level on the humanity scale. It is a front row ticket to peace of mind and, once mastered, gives us a definite personal advantage. Multitudes of people today are concerned about creating a better world. Perhaps one of the ways to change the world is to make forgiveness a household word and to find opportunities every day to practice it in your life. Forgiveness is a wise energy choice.
Bruna Martinuzzi is a facilitator, author, speaker, and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a company that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, and presentation skills training. Her latest book is The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.