WRITTEN BY: AARON TRUONG
Maybe you’ve realized that there is someone in your life you need to forgive (a friend, family member, teammate, boss, etc.) and you’ve come to the conclusion that carrying unforgiveness is hurting you more than it’s helping. What now?
In some situations, it may actually be possible and beneficial to seek reconciliation with the person who offended or hurt you. It can be incredibly healing when you’re able to share your feelings and work things out, as long as doing so isn’t harmful to yourself or others. However, if the person who hurt you is abusive, narcissistic, or unsafe, seeking to make amends may lead to more injury, which would complicate the forgiveness process, so you may want to consider forgiving from afar rather than reconciling with the person for now. On the other hand, if the person hurt you unintentionally and is actually a sympathetic and understanding adult, it may be possible to reconcile your relationship by talking with them about how you’re feeling. But how do you talk about it in a way that reduces the probability of defensiveness so that they will actually understand and possibly even repent? Here are some ideas that have helped me learn to communicate my feelings more effectively with people in my life.
With the exception of abuse, when we have conflicts with others, we’re usually not purely innocent victims; we contributed to the conflict somehow. For example, maybe our spouse wronged us but the way we reacted to them may have only made things worse. When seeking to make amends with people whom we have anger or outstanding conflicts with, I find that it’s often helpful to begin by acknowledging my own contribution to the conflict. This takes a lot of humility because my instinct is to focus on what the other person did and what they need to change. However, Jesus calls us to look first at our own sin before criticizing or judging others for theirs. Doing so doesn’t negate the wrong that they’ve committed; it models humility and taking ownership of our mistakes. Who knows, it may even make it more likely that the other person will be willing to acknowledge their mistakes too! To confess, acknowledge what you did, how it may have made the other person feel, and why it was wrong.
2. Use Whole Messages
When communicating about emotionally sensitive experiences or conflicts, I find that using “Whole Messages” tends to minimize the likelihood of miscommunication and increase the chances that the other person will be able to understand your heart. A simple acronym that may help you to remember this whole message framework is DEAR – Describe, Express, Assert, and Reinforce. I’ll explain what these mean and then give an example of how it all fits together.
DESCRIBE – First, you want to describe, in objective terms, what happened or what was done to lead you to feel hurt or offended. Imagine if you were to recall the situation for a newspaper report – you’re just reporting the facts, like what was done, what was said, etc. For example, if you have a friend who repeatedly shows up late for lunch appointments, you might begin by saying, “Hey, do you mind if talk with you about something that’s been on my mind? When you showed up 15 minutes late for our last few appointments…” Notice that it’s specific and there are no value statements, no judgments, no opinions about the person’s intentions or character. It’s just the facts of what happened.
EXPRESS – Next, you can express how you felt as a result of what happened. When you express your feelings, however, you’ll want to use an “I feel” statement in which you say “I felt/feel” + an emotion word (hurt, dismissed, ignored, sad, etc.). This serves to reduce defensiveness in the other person. You’re just expressing the emotional response that you had. You’re not blaming the other person or saying they made you feel that way. You’re just sharing what you felt.
Then you’ll want to connect your expression of your feelings with your thoughts. This is where you can express why you felt the way you did. For example, to continue with the previous example, “I found myself feeling irritated because it seems like you’re not really respecting my time.”
Here’s a simplified framework that might help you to remember for expressing your emotions:
“I feel/felt (emotion word) because (reason/what you thought).”
ASSERT – Sometimes, when you share how you felt about something, people may be wondering, “So what do you want me to do about it?” The next part of the whole message involves assertively communicating what it was that you would like the person to do or change in the future. Perhaps you’d like the person to acknowledge that they’ve done or you’d like an apology. In our current example, it might sound something like, “I would really appreciate it if in the future, you meet me on time so we can make the most of our lunch times.” You can’t control another person’s actions, so there’s no guarantee that the other person will do what you desire. However, you still want to be clear about what it is that you desire.
REINFORCE – In the final step, you’re reinforcing the benefits of your request and reinforcing the relationship in general. You’re communicating your positive intent for the relationship or positive regard for the person. For example, you might say something like, “I really value our time together and I want to make it count. Thanks for understanding.”
So when you put it all together, the message communicates what happened, how you felt and why, what you’d like to change, and your shared goals in resolving the conflict. How you talk about your conflict or situation will sound different but if you include these elements, it more likely that you’ll be more clearly understood by the person you’re seeking to make amends with.
Here’s the complete statement from our hypothetical situation:
“Hey, do you mind if talk with you about something that’s been on my mind? When you showed up 15 minutes late for our last few appointments, I found myself feeling irritated because it seems like you’re not really respecting my time. I would really appreciate it if in the future, you arrive at the agreed upon time. I really value our time together and I want to make it count. Thanks for understanding.”
Putting it Together
You may be thinking, “Okay, that sounds great but I don’t really know if that would work for a real conflict with someone in my life.” That’s fine. This is just a simple framework to consider as you’re putting your thoughts together before approaching a tough issue. With practice, it doesn’t have to seem formulaic or formal. You can mix the elements in as you express yourself in your own words.
Here’s an example from a real situation in which my dad and I had a serious argument and harsh words were exchanged from both sides (shared with permission). I was leaving town for a business trip the next day, so I wanted to at least let my dad know how I was feeling so I wrote him the following email:
I just wanted to send you an email to address the conflict that we had the other day before I head off for my trip to Hawaii. It would have been nice to get to sit down and talk in person, but the last few days have been pretty busy.
I wanted to begin by acknowledging that the way that I treated you the last few days was not right (confession). Even though I was really hurt and offended when you said that I'm not a loving person, responding by refusing to help you with the ladder when you needed it only served to prove you right. I know that that was wrong for me to do and it was pretty childish to act that way.
When you said that I'm “unloving” because I refused to talk to _______ for you (describe), I felt really hurt because I think you made an unfair judgment of me as a person (express). I know I'm not naturally the most dependent or affectionate person, but I've been trying over the years to be more loving towards you and mom. I didn’t think it was a fair assessment of who I am as a person. There are times when I’m trying to draw better personal boundaries in order to keep myself emotionally healthy, which is why I wouldn’t do what you were asking me to.
I want you to know that I forgive you and understand that I haven't always been the best son to you. I've had times when I've been stressed about other things, or tired and have been short tempered or cold towards you (confession). I could see why you would think that I'm not always the most loving person in the world. However, I hope you'll see that there are also times when I do show you that I care about you and that my relationship with you matters to me. Otherwise, I wouldn't be writing you this email to repair our relationship after our conflict.
I hope you'll forgive me for the childish way I reacted after you called me unloving. I wish I would have been more mature and forgiving. I also hope you'll forgive me for the times in the past when I haven't been as loving and warm towards you as you may have wanted or needed. I hope you'll see that I am trying and that you'll understand my reasons for not wanting to get involved in your conflicts with other family members. I hope also that you'll respect my boundaries and not try to involve me in the future in any attempts to "mediate" or "talk to them" for you (assert).
I love you and am so grateful for all that you've done for me and how hard you try to be a loving and godly father. You've provided me with a place to live, wonderful opportunities to go to school, and you've sacrificed a lot for us to have the life we have. You've also put up with a lot of crap from me and I'm grateful for your forgiveness and patience with me all of these years. I know that you never intend harm, but always want what's best for me. You're a very selfless and caring person who would bend over backwards to help other people (reinforce). I respect that you have a different perspective on things. However, despite our differences, I'm grateful that we can have honest and open conversations about things and that you're always willing to look honestly at yourself and work on things. I love you and I hope that we'll be able to reconcile and continue building our relationship as adults.
With love, Aaron
I hope this framework is as helpful for you as it has been for me. Hopefully, it’ll help you more effectively communicate and approach the unresolved conflicts you may have in your life and make amends.
In the next article, we’ll look at forgiving someone from afar when amends are not possible or may be unsafe/harmful.