Adapted from Paula Cole Jones, "Reconciliation: A Community Building Practice," 2003. Used with permission.
Without reconciliation, there is no future together. — Desmond Tutu
When we engage in reconciliation, we invite change that will shape the future of a relationship.
Reconciliation is a word that evokes different meanings and images. It is important that we make a distinction between apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The following definitions are from Webster's Dictionary.
Apology is "a formal justification, defense, excuse; an admission of error accompanied by an expression of regret. It implies an attempt to avoid or remove blame or censure."
To forgive is "to cease to feel resentment against."
To reconcile is "to restore friendship or harmony or to settle or resolve differences."
Another word that helps us understand what it is to reconcile is transform. To transform is "to change the composition or structure of, to change in character or condition."
Apology alone is not enough. A friend of mine once asked, "Who is an apology really for? What does it do for the injured party? Is it to relieve the burden of the person who caused the injury?" Apology sometimes shifts the burden from the person who has extended a hand to the injured party in that they now hold the responsibility of accepting the apology with no commitment to changing the conditions that caused the problem. With apology, the person who caused the injury may never know the impact of their actions.
A new beginning can result from reconciliation where the parties, through their encounter and commitment to change, create a better future.
Apology followed by forgiveness can be an act of generosity, but still may not lead to change. It does not mean that the other person understands the problem and it may not complete the work of establishing a sense of trust and confidence.
Reconciliation transforms the individuals and the present by bringing the parties to a new consciousness about the way they see, treat, and represent each other.
We constantly have a choice to either avoid or claim the chance to build trusting, long lasting, and productive relationships.
Silence, denying the problem
Buttons easily pushed, preoccupation with the problem, complaining about the other person, justifying own actions
Communicating with the person, shift from judging and defending to listening and sharing
Empathizing with the other person
Moving from focus on the issue to focus on learning and growth
Trust that the other has resolved and moved from focus on the issue to focus on learning and growth
Hold each other in esteem and are accountable for communication and new behavior
As you think about a practice of reconciliation, ask yourself the following questions.
What am I to do?
Why am I doing it?
Whom will it impact?
When will I do it?
Where will I do it?
How will I do it?
What are we to do?
Why are we doing it?
Whom will it impact?
When will we do it?
Where will we do it?
How will we do it?
What am I to do?
- Know when you are not in right relationship.
- Have the humility and courage to care.
- Take steps to heal the relationship.
Why am I doing it?
- Reconciliation is important for the community to stay healthy.
- To heal fractures that reduce our ability to live and work effectively together.
- To learn the other person's perspective so that we can find mutual solutions.
- To end preoccupation with troubled relationships that rob us of our vitality and valuable time, or end in indifference that hardens our feelings.
- To be congruent with the belief that people can create thriving communities.
- To hold the other person in esteem and stop reacting from a negative point of view.
- To replace the ripple effect of resentment with the ripple effect of reconciliation, which has benefits that go beyond the current relationship.
When do I do it?
- Most often in a private moment between you and the other person. Trust that you will know when the opportunity is present.
- Or plan it: Take initiative with a call or e-mail.
- Reconciliation efforts almost always begin after considerable personal struggle.
Where do I do it?
- In person.
- On the telephone.
- In a combination of telephone and letter or e-mail.
- Usually over several conversations or notes.
Whom will it impact?
- The person with whom you've had the conflict.
- The group you belong to, whether family, friends, or community. Consider letting others know that you have resolved your differences, especially if the conflict is something that happened in a group setting. This models for others what it means to be in right relationship. It also prevents old anxiety from being spread or taken out of context by others.
How do I do it?
1. Create lists: One has names of people with whom you need to reconcile. The other has names of people with whom you have done or begun reconciliation. The lists keep your commitment tangible and help you decide when the time is right to reconcile with specific people. Drawing a line through names on the first list and adding them to the other as you begin reconciliation with people will provide a sense of growth.
- If your list is long, start by focusing on a few names.
- Resolve to review your lists at set periods.
- As names come off, add new ones.
2. Understand your motivation: You must be genuine. If you find yourself preoccupied with a difficult relationship, try to do an honest assessment to understand the feelings that are motivating your concerns.
3. Shift your attention: Ask yourself what you need to let go of so you can shift your attention away from your sense of hurt, betrayal, frustration, guilt, or avoidance to a commitment to be in conversation. This will put you more at ease so you can think about what effect you and the other person are having on people around you, whether you have a personal, professional, or faith community relationship.
4. Decide how to raise the issue: How to raise the issue is not always clear. Remember that this is an exchange with someone who is likely to have negative feelings, too. You have no idea how the other person will react. This is the part that feels risky and can prevent you from the needed encounter. I use the word encounter because raising the issue is not a matter of going in with a solution, but of facing the person with an openness to understand his/her experience and find solutions together, knowing that people experience the same things differently.
It is often helpful to have a conversation with someone else about the frustration you feel before reconciling with a particular person. This can help you gather courage to face the issues, understand the other person, and restore the relationship. The discipline is to become aware of your intentions so you do not enter the conversation with the goal of justifying your actions.
5. Encounter the person: One can sometimes resolve a strained relationship without addressing the cause of the strain with the other person. Try letting go of your negative reactions, and see if you can achieve a functional relationship without bringing old baggage into your interactions. More often, though, you will need to reconcile directly with the other person. Sometimes you just take a deep breath and let the current moment be the time.
6. Make a new commitment: After airing the issues, make a commitment to change. This may be a personal commitment that they can trust you not to speak negatively of them to others; and that you will come to them when you feel a need to go deeper. It can also be a commitment that you make together about more specific changes.
7. Bring closure on the past: You might want to write a closing statement that gives you the words to say it is over and you are moving forward. This reminds you to leave the conflict in the past.
8. If your efforts fall short: Go to the list of Avoiding and Claiming Behaviors (above) to see where the process is stuck. Re-examine your own role first, and begin working from that point. You must be honest with yourself along the way.
- Journaling can help you tap into feelings and assumptions that are not clear to you.
- Talking with someone you trust may provide insight.
- If your communication with the other person fails, you can decide to resolve the issue for yourself, without an expectation that the other person is ready to work through the issues.