Using Conflict Resolution Skills: Trying to Forgive and Move Forward

In a chapter in The Negotiator’s Fieldbook (American Bar Association, 2006), Ellen Waldman and Frederic Luskin write that forgiveness isn’t an essential component of negotiation; you may be able to get to the finish line despite resenting or disliking your counterpart intensely. But when you’re suffering from a grievance, you could get trapped in a cycle of anger, self-pity, and resentment that puts you at risk for further conflict as well as emotional and physical stress.

Because simply remembering a hurtful experience triggers a biochemical stress response, moving beyond blame can help you better regulate your emotions and even lower your blood pressure, researchers have found. The health benefits offered by forgiveness can have a transformative impact on conflict, write Waldman and Luskin.

In one of its studies, the Stanford Forgiveness Project brought together people on both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland who had suffered personal losses, including the deaths of loved ones, for a week of forgiveness training. When assessed six months later, the participants’ rating of the intensity of their hurt had declined significantly.

Overall, conflict resolution training has been found to encourage people to experience greater empathy toward their offenders and to change their story of victimization to one of overcoming adversity.

In the context of negotiations, the forgiveness inspired by a sincere, well-timed apology can potentially improve the odds of settlement and repair relationships.

That’s not to say that forgiveness is always achievable or even desirable. In particular, the greater the trauma people have suffered, the less open they will be to reconciliation. Studies of judicial initiatives in Rwanda and post-apartheid South Africa suggest that victims must feel a sense of economic and psychological stability before they can summon the strength to forgive those who have harmed them.

But if the prospect of moving on psychologically from a grievance appeals to you, how can you increase your own capacity to forgive? Your willingness to forgive someone who has hurt you may depend on your beliefs about human nature, according to the results of a 2010 experiment by Michael P. Haselhuhn of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Maurice E. Schweitzer and Alison M. Wood of the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers had participants square off against an opponent who repeatedly violated their trust in a computerized negotiation before apologizing. Participants who believed that moral character can change over time were more likely to trust their counterparts following the apology than were participants who believed that moral character is fixed.

The results suggest that you can increase your capacity for forgiveness by allowing for the possibility that a counterpart who expresses a seemingly heartfelt apology is capable of personal growth.

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