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Forgiveness and Reconciliation:
Processes and Outcomes
Loren Toussaint & Ellen Waldman
Editors’ Note: How many negotiations are reduced to a numbers game by the unthinking responses of professional negotiators who don’t recognize what is really at stake for their clients? How many negotiators frame what “should” be achieved in the negotiation, conveniently getting around the fact that the agent can’t be paid one-third of an apology? Here, a lawyer and a psychologist together examine the evidence that forgiveness may be the single most desirable negotiation outcome in many situations, when measured by physical and mental health of those involved—but that a lockstep push toward forgiveness in all disputes is neither possible, nor desirable. This chapter should be read in conjunction with Brown & Robbennolt on Apology.
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory ... is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free....
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, Act IV, 570 (1820).
Forgiveness is not necessary to forge a deal. One can bargain, barter and horse-trade with an unapologetic enemy. One can continue to harbor deep-seated resentments even while signing settlement papers. For this reason, forgiveness and reconciliation have not received extensive treatment in the negotiation literature. But, if the question of whether one can or should forgive one’s adversary is not central to the mechanics of getting to yes, it is important in assessing the short and long-term costs of disputing and in developing strategies to minimize those costs.
Attorneys and other third parties involved in heated negotiations regularly work with clients who are deeply angry with those they believe have “done them wrong.” Although legal professionals focus on curing the legal problem, frequently this hard fought cure is not sufficient to make clients “feel whole.” Clients need an emotional solution as much as a legal one, and the emotional solution frequently calls for forgiveness. Unfortunately, attorneys and other dispute resolution professionals are rarely able to help clients recognize or address that need.
This essay argues that forgiveness promises tangible health benefits and can have transformative effects on individuals locked in intractable conflict. It presents data on embattled individuals whose physical health dramatically improved after participation in forgiveness training and discusses how ongoing enmity triggers the body’s biochemical feedback system in maladaptive and destructive ways.
Despite its obvious health benefits, however, forgiveness cannot be prescribed as a universal panacea. Experiments with restorative justice responses to fractured communities suggest that victim forgiveness should only be encouraged after other tangible steps have been taken toward acknowledging victim suffering and healing the victim’s physical, psychic, and material wounds. Dispute system designs misperceive the pre-conditions to magnanimity when they assume offender truth-telling or apology will automatically trigger victim forgiveness. True forgiveness can only come from a basic foundation of security. Until victims’ basic physical and security needs are met, they cannot and should not be expected to extend grace to their enemies....
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