Last week I attended the Heartland Mediators Association’s conference featuring Eileen Barker as the speaker. Ms. Barker spoke about forgiveness. In a single post, I can’t do justice to her day-and-a-half seminar about forgiveness. And she only touched on a part of her twelve-step forgiveness process. So I will focus on one step in the process—deconstructing our grievance stories.
As a mediator, an attorney, and a Human Resources professional, I have heard many, many grievance stories over the years. In the legal context, the grievance story takes the form of someone who feels wronged who wants to punish the person or institution that wronged them—whether it be the other person in a car accident, the owner of the premises where they fell, the manager who fired them, or any other situation causing them pain or grief.
We all tell stories to find the meaning in what is happening in our lives. According to Ms. Barker, there are three essential elements in a grievance story:
1. The aggrieved individual interprets an event in a personal way, as something intended to impact him or her in a negative way.
2. The aggrieved individual blames someone else for how he or she feels.
3. The aggrieved individual tells a story in which he or she is the victim, powerless to control the situation.
Let’s take a workplace example: I’m thinking of a time when I did not get a job I thought I was well- qualified for. The hiring manager told me that he “would sleep better at night” if he hired the other candidate. I immediately took that statement personally—I interpreted the remark to mean that he believed me unqualified and he would worry about me in the role. I felt mortified to think he thought I was unqualified and shamed that I had even put myself forward for the position. And I blamed him for making me feel that way. Of course, I was the victim—there was nothing I could do to change the situation, because he had the power to decide who to hire.
Deconstructing the story involves changing the three elements of the grievance story:
1. Looking for another way to tell the story so it’s not about the aggrieved individual.
2. Looking for the positive intention in the other person’s action, not blaming them.
3. Turning the story so that the aggrieved individual is the hero, not the victim, to give him or her back the power.
In my example above, I had to re-frame my story to tell myself that the hiring manager was looking for the best person for the job. I had to accept that on paper the other candidate had more experience than I did, even if I believed I was best able to take the job where it needed to go in the future. By retelling the story, I could see the hiring manager’s positive intention—he wanted the best person for the job, even if I disagreed with who that was. And I had to find ways to take back my power. Within a few weeks, I accepted another position that allowed me to grow professionally, even if it wasn’t the position I had first applied for and that I really wanted.
Deconstructing my story took time. I was quickly able to move on from my initial feelings of mortification and shame. But it took a couple of years for me to see the advantages of the situation I’d found myself in and to realize that I grew from the experience and that maybe I was better off than I would have been had I been thrust into the role I’d applied for.
This deconstruction of our stories is part of how we come to forgive. I later reported to this hiring manager and we built a good working relationship. I forgave his unfortunate comment that he “would sleep better at night” if he hired the other candidate (though obviously, I never forgot it).
When have you told yourself a grievance story about a situation in your life? How did you deconstruct it?