What is the Role of Forgiveness in Mediation?

Forgiveness can be a powerful and transformative element in mediation and conflict resolution.  While forgiveness is not always the main goal in mediation, it can create a conducive environment for amicably resolving conflicts. The case for forgiveness in mediation stems not just from its potential to facilitate resolution but also from its potential to allow for emotional healing, overcoming feelings of guilt, rebuilding relationships, promoting reconciliation, and offering something of personal value to those who have experienced harm or loss. And, as mediators, we should be open to providing support to parties in a conflict in pursuing opportunities for forgiveness.

Restoring Connections

For those of you who have attended one of my mediation training courses or listened to me speak before, you know I talk about there being two basic human needs from a neurobiological perspective. One basic need is growth and development and the other one, which is more pertinent to this discussion, is connection — our need to be connected to others around us and be part of a broader community or society.

This second basic need underscores the importance of apologies and the role of forgiveness in restoring those important connections in our lives, whether they are connections between family members, other loved ones, coworkers, or even broader communities or nation-states.  The idea of restoring our connections with each other speaks to who we are at our very basic human level.

The Power of Forgiveness

Years ago, I attended a lecture by Van Jones, a noted CNN commentator, who described being present in South Carolina at the scene of a church shooting where a white gunman had opened fire during a prayer session killing nine African American parishioners. He arrived the day after the shooting to participate in a panel of commentators covering the tragedy and its aftermath.

Young, African American woman praying with tears in her eyes

As a young African American man, Van described being so filled with rage that morning that as he was being fitted with his microphone, he couldn’t bring himself to look his fellow panelists in the eye. Then he recounted, a most amazing thing happened.

As they were preparing for the broadcast, sounds of singing rose from the church behind them, softly at first, then rising with emotion as the church choir led the congregation in the hymn “Alleluia”. As Van described the moment, it wasn’t an expression of joy but of happiness, a happiness that flowed because the church members had found it within their hearts to forgive. And while the church gunman may have taken lives, he would not be allowed to take the souls of those he had so callously murdered.

And with this realization by the church congregation that the power of forgiveness was theirs to wield, with forgiveness came a renewal of hope and faith. Van found comfort in the moment, a moment he described as reflecting the best of the human spirit.

Forgiveness is a Personal Choice

What I found so profoundly moving about this story at the time was that it reflected a personal choice, really a group of them. But it was a conscious decision made immediately in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy and divorced from consideration of reconciliation, punishment, or apology. I remember thinking, I don’t know if I would have the strength within me to forgive, much less in that moment.

My reflection on forgiveness has continued this past year as I have been involved in teaching and conversations with mediators in Ukraine and the Middle East. I have often found myself thinking, is there a case for forgiveness to be made? A case that offers something of value to those who have endured life-altering suffering.

Dr Robert Enright is a professor of Forgiveness Science at the University of Madison- Wisconsin. Dr. Enright has been studying forgiveness for over forty years and has made it his life’s mission to “promote forgiveness in every willing heart, home and homeland”. During a recent podcast on CNN, Dr. Enright, while reminding us that forgiveness is a personal choice, begins by saying that he doesn’t subscribe to the mantra “forgive and forget”. Rather, he teaches that it is healing to “forgive and remember”.  Dr. Enright continues that the lesson is to remember in a different way, learning to remember without the rancor and without the rage. Ultimately, when we do remember, it’s without the same kind of pain.

Developing Empathy for Forgiveness

Dr. Enright teaches us that our ability to forgive can be strengthened like a muscle. The more we forgive, the easier it becomes. He describes a simple lesson where you close your eyes and imagine someone who has hurt you in some way. What do you feel? Anger? Resentment? Frustration? Sadness? Fear?  Are there physical sensations called somatic markers, like a clenched jaw or a knot in your stomach, that confirm your state of agitation?  Now, take several deep breaths and ask yourself, can I forgive this person? Can I empathize with them and what brought them to this hurtful moment?

Dr. Enright also speaks about the timing of forgiveness. He counsels that those who have been gravely mistreated must respect their emotions and that forgiveness occurs most typically once you have “settled in your heart”. Some will be ready. Many will not. Yet for those who freely choose forgiveness, it can be deeply healing.

The Benefits of Forgiveness

When we can consciously cultivate forgiveness, it carries with it profound psychological and physical benefits. Psychological studies have revealed that those who can forgive experience reduced anger, anxiety, and depression, while physical benefits include lower blood pressure, better sleep, and reduced stress.

In one group who had undergone Dr. Enright’s twelve-step forgiveness program and were then connected to a heart monitor, “the arteries of the heart stayed open to a statistically significantly greater degree than those who did not have forgiveness”.  It’s these scientific findings that underly the quote by Lewis Smedes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you”.

I’m mindful that forgiveness is a profoundly personal choice. For some, the scale of the harm suffered may never lend itself to choosing a path other than revenge. For others, the ability to see an adversary as a wounded person yet sharing a common humanity may give rise to life-altering benefits.

One year, on a teaching excursion to Rwanda with my partner and wife Susan, we were hosted at the opening of a community center in a small village outside of Kigali, the nation’s capital. Only 25 years removed from the worst genocide of the past century, perpetrators of violence and victims of violence were still living in the same small communities attempting to coexist against a backdrop of unspeakable violence.

The program finale involved two villagers standing shoulder to shoulder before the assembled audience to describe the benefit of having this new community center, a forum for resolving disputes and engaging their community. First, the man described his guilt and shame surrounding his murder of the woman’s family during the first hours of the 100-day genocide. She spoke next of forgiveness, her faith, and her willingness to accept him back into the community. They had faced each other in the hardest of conversations and ultimately found peace with each other, even working together to start a basket-weaving business.

An image of young adults talking around a table with one female sitting to the side, clearly hurt by something said.

Providing a Space in Mediation for Forgiveness

Apology and forgiveness are complex concepts that we, as mediators, need a better understanding of. I consider them so important that I focus considerable time on addressing them in my mediation skills training course. And, it is important to note that, given human nature, not all mediations will provide opportunities for apology and forgiveness.  Nonetheless, we need to provide a space in mediation for the possibility for forgiveness to emerge naturally and be prepared and skilled at bringing out the best in parties in a dispute when there are opportunities to express apologies or pursue forgiveness.

If you view your mediation practice as I do, as being more complex and broad-reaching in terms of not just getting a deal done but looking for opportunities to restore relationships, then you’re going to be well down the road toward having an open mind and a mediator’s mindset about the apology and forgiveness opportunity.

None of us know whether we have the strength and courage to forgive like those in the examples above, and none of us should judge others for their personal choice. Yet for those victims of atrocities and all that follows, there is hope available. There is a case for forgiveness to be made. The alternative, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “If we keep taking an eye for an eye, the whole world will be blind”.

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Bruce A. Edwards is an ADR industry pioneer and recent chairman of the board of directors of JAMS, this country’s largest private provider of ADR services. Along with his wife, Susan Franson Edwards, Mr. Edwards cofounded Edwards Mediation Academy, an online education platform dedicated to improving the skills of mediators around the world.

Bruce A. Edwards

Bruce is one of the pioneers in developing mediation to resolve commercial disputes in the United States. He has been a professional mediator since 1986 and has mediated over 8000 disputes. Bruce was a co-founder and former chairman of the board of directors of JAMS. In 2023 he joined Signature Resolution to continue his mediation practice while pursuing his passion for delivering high-quality mediation training through Edwards Mediation AcademyBruce has consistently received recognition for his work as a mediator, most recently being accepted into the inaugural edition of Who’s Who in ADR by ADR Times 2022; once again recognized as a Best Lawyer in the ADR category by Best Lawyers® 2022 and recognized as a Global Elite Thought Leader and Mediator in the US by Who’s Who Legal, 2023.