Fear and Forgiveness

This week our very own Lisa McArthur tackles the weight of fear and the weightlessness of forgiveness.


Reading the story of Dean Otto this week, it’s hard not to reflect on the power of forgiveness.  For those not familiar with his story, Dean was seriously injured when struck by a truck while riding his bike last September.  He had no feeling from the waist down.  Against the odds, last week Dean completed a half-marathon in under 2 hours.  But what makes this story so unique is that Dean ran that marathon alongside his surgeon and the young man who hit him.

Even while sitting on the side of the road, Dean forgave the driver.  “I accepted what had happened to me.  I forgave the guy that hit me so I wouldn’t harbor any resentment and being able to do that has really helped me throughout the whole process.”


A poignant example of forgiveness overcoming fear.  Fear holds us back and restricts us from working together and accomplishing truly inspiring things.  The ability to be gracious, to forgive, to move forward past a challenging event benefits everyone involved.  If Dean can forgive the driver of the truck that hit him…what’s stopping me? What grievances do you have in your workplace and what’s stopping you from moving past them? In a word…FEAR.

Fear makes us hold back, avoid situations and do nothing. But doing nothing has a cost a well. How do we move past our fears, forgive and build trust?

Step 1: Name your fear

Start by being explicit about what is holding you back. Here are 4 common ones:

  • Execution fear – I might make a mistake
  • Competence fear – I don’t how to do it right
  • Outcome fear – Everything might not turn out the way I want it to
  • Shame-based fear – They might not like or respect me anymore

Step 2: Write it, Read it, Say it

Once you can identify your fear, write it down, read it and say it out-loud. Don’t be tempted to skip this step. By writing things down and saying them out-loud, we move past our fight-or-flight emotional impulses and diminish the power of the emotion. I’ve often been in contentious meetings and have scribbled many such “verbalizations” in the margin of my notebook. Trust me…it works!

Step 3:  What’s the worst that could happen?

Think about your next meeting or conversation? What will you say or do? What is the worst thing that could happen? Could you be challenged? Yes. Could you be embarrassed? Possibly. What else might happen?

For many of us, the outcomes will not be life-threatening. They may be unpleasant for the short-term but will be things we can overcome. Thinking about outcomes rationally can help us maintain perspective and take the fear out of the situation.

Step 4: Identify the other person’s fear

Put your fears aside and try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Dean Otto told the young driver to not let this define or haunt him. He recognized the fear and impact of the event on both of them. Think about your personal situation…what fears might be driving the other person’s behavior? How might you be able to help them overcome their own fears?

This serves two key purposes…it may help you find new win-win ways to deal with the situation…but most importantly, it changes the sound of that little voice inside your head and lets you move beyond your fear.

Step 5:  Act

Most importantly, you need to act.

Understanding both perspectives, take honest stock of the situation, define what you can and cannot do, then take action. Remember, the fear of doing something wrong often stops us from doing something right. Be confident in your intent. As Dean said he “forgave…so I wouldn’t harbor any resentment.”

Team performance in any organization starts with collaboration. We must learn how to hold ourselves accountable to each other, get past our own fears and resolve conflict quickly. Fear holds us back and prevents us from working together. By acknowledging our fears and taking the risk of forgiveness, we create teams that can accomplish great things. What fears are holding you back from forgiveness and what risks are you willing to take to run your own version of a half-marathon?

A Flipswitch Moment: Blame and Control

Usually life is a continuum. But occasionally you run across one of those flipswitch moments. The trick is—are you open to them?

A friend of mine, some time ago, told me this:

My dad was an alcoholic and a smoker. We loved him and resented him at the same time, because he would be there for us one moment, and then the next moment, not at all.

Eventually he got lung cancer, and we figured that was it. I ended pretty much staying away from him during his illness; I was just too resentful. And then he had surgery, and made a completely unexpected recovery. He quit drinking and smoking, and we were delighted. Though still suspicious.

He picked smoking back up soon enough, and then the drinking. And after a few years, the illness was back, and I knew he wouldn’t beat it twice. He told me once, “You know, I’m not an alcoholic, I really could stop whenever I wanted.” I hated him for that lie. 

As the end came, I got more and more bitter about his irresponsible actions toward all of us, and his refusal to take any blame. He never apologized. I went with my siblings to see him in the hospital, but I hated it.

A nurse pulled me aside. She said, “He only has a few days left. He doesn’t have the emotional or mental energy to change at this point. If you’re waiting for your father to apologize to you for all that he’s done to you in life—now is the time to give that up. It’s never going to happen. Now the only one who can change is you.”

I shivered, because I knew she was right. The next day, I was able to forgive him. He did the best he could; it wasn’t very good, but it was his best. I told him I loved him, and I did. I was able to give up the rest. And I’ll always be grateful to that nurse for giving my future back to me.

My friend was open to the flipswitch moment.

Are you?

What’s Trust Got to Do With Respect?

On the one hand, the connection between trust and respect seems clear. As Thomas Friedman put it:

I’m often asked how I, an American Jew, have been able to operate so successfully in the Arab world. My answer is simple: it is to be a good listener. It has never failed me. Listening is a sign of respect. If you truly listen to the other person, they will then listen to what you have to say.

Aretha Franklin just spelled it out.

Behaving respectfully toward others is likely to increase your trustworthiness in others’ eyes, and to make them more likely to trust you.

But should it work the other way? What if someone is disrespectful to us? Should we then behave in a less trustworthy way toward them? Should we trust them less?

There’s an equally venerable point of view that says get over it, sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, someone can hurt you emotionally only with your permission, hear other people but do not allow your emotions to be held hostage by theirs.

Of course, sometimes name-calling is a prelude to violence; disrespect can signal untrustworthiness. Only a fool doesn’t look for a nearby exit door in such situations.

But we over-rate how often that is true.

This territory of trust, listening and respect is rife with opportunities for self-improvement. Strive to respect others—not in the ways you would be respected, but in ways the other person would consider as being respected. Which means listening, very attentively.

But when disrespected, strive to rise above it. Return respect for disrespect, by listening for motives and for understanding.

Does this mean holding ourselves to a higher standard than others? And is that disrespectful in itself?

I’d like to think not. On some absolute scale, all of us are awful at this. When you behave disrespectfully, notice it and resolve to do better in future. When someone is disrespectful towards you, notice how much like them you are, and resolve to overlook it on the spot.

Apologies, Forgiving and Forgiveness

For some reason, I just ran across a September, 2004, article by Martha Beck titled “Always Apologize, Always Explain,” in Oprah Magazine.

It’s still a good read.  Part of what makes it powerful is a list of what is contained in a good apology (itself from Aaron Lazare, the man who—literally—wrote the book on Apology)

1. Full acknowledgement of the offense
2. An explanation
3. Genuine expresssion of remorse
4. Reparations for damage

It’s a fine list (and has prompted me to finally buy Lazare’s book). 

But what I want to focus on is Beck’s own additional thought:

The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive—or refuse to forgive—on his own terms. That is his right.

Quite right.

It’s instructive that the ninth step of the Twelve Step program literature (you know, the one that pops up in Seinfeld and other sitcoms—the one about making amends), also doesn’t allude to forgiveness. In fact, none of the 12 steps do.

I think this is because Beck, and the 12-Step program, recognize that life is a messy business. To forgive, one has to have a very clean heart in the first place.  And we—I’ll be clean here and just say I—rarely do.

If I’m in a rush to forgive people, I most likely am still judging them for some harm they did to me.  If I’m consternated about being forgiven, well, that’s all about me; and apologies don’t come from a good place if they’re all about me.

Apologies should not be tainted by forgiving, or by seeking forgiveness.  Those have their place, but it’s elsewhere. 

A good apology tries to set aright something that you set awry by impinging on another’s will.  It’s only appropriate that the apology itself refrain from further imposition of will. Hence the separation from forgiving or forgiveness.

Apologizing is fundamentally about taking full responsibility for your own role—no more, no less—in what goes on.  Fully owning your words, your actions, your life helps everything fall into place.  Blame is gone.  Wishing is gone.  Whining and tweaking and sliming and spinning are all gone when you take responsibility for your own role—no more, no less—in what goes on.  As Phil McGee says, blame is captivity, and responsibility is freedom.

In that vein, I want to apologize to (he knows who he is) for what happened back in (he knows when it was).  It was my doing—he knows that, and I want to say to him he was right.   And I’m sorry.