Friday, November 14, 2014

Four steps to reconciliation


Years ago, a former slave reconciled with his captors and used his position to help them and their family survive. You may have heard the Hebrew story of Joseph—a man favored by his father and despised by his brothers. He was sold to traffickers and ended up a servant to an Egyptian leader where he was sexually harassed, place in prison, and forgotten for years. After his wisdom and leadership was recognized in prison, he was freed and placed in a government position. During hard times, his brothers came to purchase grain. Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. He tested them, which induced fear but later, he revealed himself, and provided for their well-being. From time to time, I have heard pastors use the story as a basis for a sermon on forgiveness. But it’s not about forgiveness. There’s no evidence of forgiveness at all. All we observe are degrees of reconciliation among the family members. And near the end of the story, when the father dies, some brothers come to Joseph in fear that, with the father gone, Joseph would seek revenge. What we do see are examples of key elements of what reconciliation means. (See Genesis chapters 37 to 50 for the biblical story.)


As you might guess, people disagree on how to define terms like forgiveness and reconciliation. From a psychological perspective, reconciliation is an interpersonal concept. Here’s a quote from Sutton and Thomas (2005, p. 35).

Reconciliation is a new state of closeness that exists between or among people who were separated because of a transgression committed by one or more of those persons. The state is characterized by prosocial behaviors.

I think it important to keep in mind that the new state of reconciliation will not necessarily be the same as the relationship before the offense. People change as a result of an offense and people change during the process of reconciliation. It is possible, that the new relationship could be somewhat better if one or both persons make personal changes that stimulate a better relationship. Of course the nature  of the offense can make a significant difference in how well the reconciliation progresses.

Like other relational concepts (forgiveness, restoration, love), reconciliation takes time. We can speak about the process of reconciling, which might go on for years. Here’s a definition of reconciling from Sutton and Thomas (2005, pp. 35-36).

Reconciling is a process of building a relationship between or among people following a transgression that caused a disruption. Reconciling includes various verbal and nonverbal
behavior patterns that suggest no significant transgression will recur.

Reconciliation can be a lifelong process. When people sincerely wish to repair a damaged relationship, they can take incremental steps to demonstrate trust. Sometimes the progress is interrupted. People have a hard time changing and people make mistakes, but progress can be made, and people do learn to work or live together following disruptions.


For some people, there is no difference. The pastors who use the Joseph story to speak about forgiveness hold a commonsense view held by many, that forgiveness entails reconciliation. In fact, some research conducted by my fellow students found that a substantial number reported that forgiveness included reconciliation. Researchers Aquino, Tripp, and Bies (2001) considered reconciliation as a behavioral manifestation of forgiveness.

In general, I support the position of my colleagues who recommend we think of forgiveness and reconciliation as related but distinct concepts. Here’s an example. You can imagine forgiving a person for something they did years ago. But perhaps you did not get around to forgiving them until recently. Meanwhile, the person died. You can still let go of the bad feelings associated with the memory of what they did. You no longer have to put the event out of your mind when it comes up. That's forgiveness. But there is no possibility of reconciliation with the deceased—at least not in the ordinary idea of working together again.

Here’s another example. Suppose a couple divorce and remarry other persons. Eventually they forgive each other for the hurts they experienced together. Maybe they learn to genuinely like each other again. But if they are focused on their new marriages, there is no reasonable possibility of reconciling as wife and husband. We could argue that being friendly is a type of reconciliation and I would agree, but it is clearly not the same as a reconciliation that restores a marriage.

Finally, people who have been abused by a spouse or other person may learn to forgive the abuser for reasons of personal well-being, but reconciliation would not be a wise move. Too many people have returned to their abusers only to be hurt again. Forgive, yes. Reconcile? Maybe.

Reconciliation is an external event that takes place between two or more people.

Forgiveness is an internal event that brings inner healing.


Actually, forgiveness seems to help promote reconciliation. It is easy to see why. If one or both people separated due to an offense learn to forgive, they are predisposed to respond favorably toward the other person. And in a disrupted marriage, it is important to work on both forgiveness and reconciliation for the well-being of each spouse and the quality of the relationship.

In reviewing the work of others (See references below) I find a few steps are likely helpful. And it is probably a good idea to work with a trusted counselor or member of the clergy to keep the reconciliation process on track. 

Step 1. Assess. The first task is to assess for readiness, which includes assessing safety. As I mentioned before, the risk of abuse or further offenses can only make things worse if not actually dangerous. Each person needs to be ready to reconcile. People are different. One person can be ready much sooner than the other. One person may never be ready.

Steps 2 and 3: Test and Trust. The next steps are two steps that are interconnected—test and trust. As in the Joseph story from long ago, people still need to test each other in small ways. When people pass reasonable tests, they learn, or relearn, trust. Trust is a relational concept. Trust is not all or nothing. Trust is a matter of degree. Sharing a meal, working on a project, or doing anything together, can build trust.

Step 4. Undo the harm. At some point in the process, when enough good will has been re-established, an effort to undo the past should take place. This can be a series of meetings or counseling sessions in which the parties feel safe to reveal the hurts, express feelings, offer apologies, and express forgiveness. See a previous post to learn more about effective apologies.



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Aquino, K., Tripp, T. M.,& Bies, R. J. (2001). How employees respond to personal offense:
         The effects of blame attribution, victim status, and offender status on revenge
          and reconciliation in the workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 52-59.

Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18, 109-130.  doi 10.1037/a0028092

Pop, J. L., Sutton, G.W., & Jones, E.G. (2009). Restoring pastors following a moral failure: The effects of self-interest and group influence, Pastoral Psychology, 57, 275-284.  doi 10.1007/s11089-008-0162-x

Sutton, G. W. (2014). Psychology of forgiveness: An overview of recent research linking psychological science and Christian spirituality. Encounter, 11 Academia Link

Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.). Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Multidisciplinary Studies from a Pentecostal Perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter? An exploration of gender, spirituality, forgiveness  and restoration following pastor transgressions. Pastoral Psychology. 55, 645-663. doi 10.1007/ s11089-007-0072-3 Online Link n11144j1655536l2/

Sutton, G.W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Can derailed pastors be restored? Effects of offense and age on restoration. Pastoral Psychology, 53, 583-599. doi: 10.1007/s11089-005-4822-7

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