Forgiveness can mean different things. When a friend misses a lunch appointment, we might be miffed, but we usually forgive. However, a cheating spouse or a friend’s betrayal is not so easy. Whatever the case, without forgiveness, we are stuck in a revolving door of rehashing, resenting, and rearview mirroring.
Fred Luskin of Stanford University, a renowned psychologist and author known for his work on forgiveness, defines forgiveness as “the ultimate resolution of unwanted loss and grief.”1 This is what forgiveness does. It moves us from what we know and experience to something new and better.
My team and I have led more than 500 design-thinking innovation2 projects. Each of those projects required teams to let go of old thinking and embrace new mindsets, tools, and skills. That meant some level of forgiving oneself and moving beyond habitual ways of thinking and acting. This is the innovation journey, and it is laced with forgiving either oneself or others. When leading innovation teams, I never assume people will automatically understand the vital role forgiveness plays in innovation.
Luskin studied people from the United States and Northern Ireland who had experienced violence and loss. He wanted to learn how the act of forgiving would impact them. His study reported a 40 percent reduction in depression among participants. Another study, focused on individuals betrayed by business partners, reported long-lasting positive effects with a 70 percent reduction in anger and hurt. Participants in both studies showed a drop in stress, blood pressure, anger, depression, and hurt while experiencing a higher degree of optimism, hope, compassion, and physical vitality.
When we do not feel like forgiving
When I was 10 years old, my grandmother took my little sister and me to one of her women’s ministry’s breakfast events. One woman scurried from table to table, delivering freshly made hot tea. When she got to our table, she accidentally spilled the drink on my sister’s head. The woman was horrified and began apologizing. My grandma jumped to her feet, cutting off her apology.
“You did that on purpose,” my grandma spat out.
I was certain the woman did not do it on purpose, but Grandma was not. My grandma gathered our things and ushered us out.
“I’m so angry. I’m never attending one of these events again,” Grandma huffed.
Usually, Grandma was very loving, but for whatever reason, forgiveness was as far from her mind as her going to the moon. True to her word, Grandma never attended another women’s ministry event.
From this experience, I learned that a significant barrier to forgiveness is being stuck in our point of view. It is the same in the innovation world. Without forgiveness, innovation does not happen. Innovation always demands reframing thinking. Jesus said something similar when He commanded us to forgive 70 times 7 times. Forgiving, especially those we deem unworthy, is not easy. It is easy to forgive people we deem worthy, but for those we think are not worthy, forgiving requires us to think differently about the person and situation. Jesus did not say to be selective. That is hard, but hard is rarely the point in matters of great importance, like forgiveness.
How do we forgive?
The world of innovation constantly teaches us about forgiveness; I think it is because we cannot forgive when stuck in yesterday’s thinking. Just like innovation, forgiveness is a forward action igniting movement, energy, and unity.
While working in a school, I was asked to reinvent a yearly program. For years, this program had been organized by a coworker, whom we shall call Rhonda, who had recently taken another position but asked if she could still help. I welcomed that. As my team and I prepared for the program, Rhonda offered to take care of the refreshments. However, on the morning of the event, Rhonda announced that she did not order any refreshments.
We stood in shocked silence. With only a few hours before the program began, we needed to act. Thankfully, the food service pitched in and supplied cookies and ice cream. Everything came off without a hitch, and the cookies and ice cream were a hit.
With the refreshment crisis averted, it should have been the end of this story. Right? Wrong! Forgiveness was the furthest from our minds when Rhonda approached us.
“Can you forgive me?” she asked. “I didn’t want your program to succeed, so I didn’t order the refreshments.”
I was dumbfounded and certainly not thinking about forgiveness. Then a teammate jumped in.
“It’s OK. The program turned out fine.”
Another team member followed, “Yes, it’s behind us now.”
Immediately, attitudes shifted. I marveled at my teammates’ transformation. They were no longer angry.
Did Rhonda deserve forgiveness? That was not the point. I had a choice. I could go on resenting her, or I could forgive. Forgiveness was not easy, but it moved me from being stuck. Forgiveness moves us from a people-must-pay-for-their-mistakes mindset to getting on with what matters. That is why I see forgiveness as synonymous with innovation; both are vehicles for new thinking and acting.
A few years back, I led a healthcare innovation project focused on reducing patient complaints during the presurgical process. The group of doctors included in the project felt patients were being “unreasonable” and needed to “buck up.”
We needed to learn what the real problem was. One doctor said several complaints were about the gurney ride to surgery. So that doctor offered to take that same gurney ride incognito. Dressed in a hospital gown and surgery cap and covered with a white sheet, the doctor was pushed by a hospital transporter into the elevator and down the hallways to a surgery unit. People talked all around him and over the bed as if he were not there. While in the elevator, two people discussed a recent basketball game. The doctor felt embarrassed, invisible, and exposed.
Experiencing what his patients experienced shifted his point of view. This simple gurney ride afforded the doctor and his team the information they needed to get unstuck and improve their patients’ experience. When the doctor put himself in the place of his patients, in their shoes, he could see their side of things. He moved from judgment, cynicism, and fear to curiosity, compassion, and courage.
Luskin’s research shows that forgiveness takes practice, but it is a skill almost anyone can learn. Over the years of working with thousands of people, I have found that God equips the human heart with three gifts that are needed to forgive others. I call them the 3Cs: curiosity, compassion, and courage.3 It is up to us to cultivate these three beautiful virtues so they can become vehicles for forgiveness. Curiosity means learning, wonder, and discovery. Compassion means kindness, grace, and love. Courage means believing there are answers and opportunities; therefore, we push past fears.
These virtues release creativity and support our leadership potential. When we infuse the 3Cs into our daily life, they demystify forgiveness and enable the creative process. Those who live up to their full creative and leadership ability are always learning, trying, failing, embracing feedback, and trying again.
Robert Fritz, a musician and creativity guru, teaches that everyone has a path of least resistance.4 If our path of least resistance is to be judgmental, cynical, and fearful, forgiveness will not be easy. It might not be forthcoming. If we choose the 3Cs, we create pathways for forgiveness. Soon curiosity, compassion, and courage become our pathway of least resistance. We are building a life of grace, love, and peace.
To forgive or not forgive: the choice is ours. David Hawkins, in his bestseller Letting Go, writes that forgiveness is the deliberate act of letting go of past hurts, anger, and heartbreak.5 The act of forgiving allows us to see those around us in a new light. Forgiving does not mean sticking our heads in the sand. When confronted with the option to forgive or not, pause, breathe, and realize that God has given you the power of choice.
Exercise curiosity, compassion, and courage, not as an overnight fix but as a gate that allows you to open a pathway to forgiveness. It is not easy. Jesus never said it would be, but He did provide a way for us to follow His last great commandment, to love our fellow men through curiosity, compassion, and courage.
I have been inspired so many times by the help others have extended. Like the day John Vixie, a principal I worked for, handed me a quote that he had framed, which read, “While none of us can go back and have a new start, we can all start today and create a whole new ending.” I hung that quote in my office. Many people have shared how much that quote has meant to them. One said, “It encouraged me to stop being angry and forgive.” Another said, “That quote helped me forgive myself and begin anew.” To this day, that quote still hangs in my office.
We all have a choice. To forgive or not to forgive. By not forgiving, we are sentencing ourselves to a life of judgment, cynicism, and fear. If, on the other hand, we forgive, we choose curiosity, compassion, and courage. What will we choose?
Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”6 If forgiveness is not love, I do not know what is.
- Fred Luskin, “The Choice to Forgive,” Greater Good magazine, September 1, 2004, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_choice_to_forgive.
- Innovation is the result or outcome of creative thinking or new ideas. It is what happens when we find better ways to do things or create improved products, and it is the result of our original, resourceful thinking in unique and unconventional ways. Its main goal is to make positive changes and improvements in whatever we are working on.
- Karen Tilstra, The Deathline: Stopping the #1 All-Time Killer of Human Potential (Longwood, FL: Brightway, 2022).
- Robert Fritz, Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1989).
- David Hawkins, Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2012).
- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862.