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Is real change possible if we can’t forgive?

Is real change possible if we can’t forgive?

by Moyra Mackie on January 18, 2017

Recently a coaching client told me:

“I’m really trying to be more collaborative but I can see it in their eyes; they don’t trust me.  They remember the old me – how can things get better if we can’t get beyond this?”

This is not the first client who has found it hard to change because others still remember the past

Which brings to mind my favourite Tony Robbins quote:

“Everybody’s got a past.  The past does not equal the future unless you live there.”

It strikes me that any kind of change – whether inside you, within teams or even between whole nations – involves the ability to let go of the past.  I think change requires forgiveness.

What I learnt about forgiveness by going home

It was April 1989 and I had been looking out of the airplane window, ever since we crossed the Zambezi River from Zambia into Zimbabwe.  It was autumn and the bush below was losing its summer green, revealing small settlements, the occasional herd of elephant and long, straight gunmetal grey roads breaking up the red earth stretching all the way to the horizon.

As the plane bounced down onto the runway, I realised that I had been away for half my life.

But I felt that I was coming home 

Walking across the tarmac I wondered what lay ahead. I was a white woman with a British passport – I potentially represented colonial white privilege.

Was the past another country?


My dad had left the UK to teach in what was Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s – part of a shrinking, but still considerable, British Empire. He had taught in all-white schools and the only black people I had any real contact with growing up were our nannies and gardeners.

My family and I had left at the height of what is known in Zimbabwe as the Second Chimurenga – Shona for “revolutionary struggle.”  From low level resistance to white minority rule that began in the late sixties, the war escalated in the 70s.

In an enormous, sparsely populated country, road and rail travel were vulnerable to attack, with hundreds of mines being detonated every year. By 1976 travel between towns – journeys of hundreds of miles – happened in high speed convoys, with military vehicles at the front and back and almost every car with an AK47 stuck out the window.

Every evening, life in our house stopped as we listened to the “Radio Communiqué” list the “military contacts”; the deaths and injuries.  Everyone was armed.  We got used to  food rationing and shortages, the presence of grenade screens on every window and the absence of friends’ fathers as they went to do their regular six week call up in “the Bush.”

I heard my dad remark that two thirds of a generation of boys he had taught had died in combat.

But the final straw for him was the death of his best friend,killed  in an enemy raid on his farm, leaving a pregnant wife behind. This pushed my dad to join the “chicken run” – the flight of people from the country who had somewhere else to go.

In the two years between us leaving and the Lancaster House peace agreement, the war got worse, with a hardening of positions in some quarters, an increase in fear on all sides.  Most other countries in Africa had descended into violence and chaos when the colonial powers left.  What would happen next?

The present isn’t perfect

In ten years of independence, the country had had its ups and downs.  Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President had fallen out of favour with the previously enthusiastic British government.  Mugabe upped the anti-British rhetoric and the British press loved to print stories of his excesses and corruption and his seizure of white owned farms.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of forgiveness going round

The immigration officer – a young black man about my own age – opened my blue British passport. He glanced at my place of birth – Fort Victoria – a name redolent with Empire.  I waited.  He looked up at me and smiled broadly:  “Welcome home.”

This set the tone for my stay – whenever people found out I was Zimbabwean, they went out of their way to give their time and share whatever they had.

For a while I stayed with a third generation white Zimbabwean – Mike – who took me to Heroes Acre, where guerrilla fighters are buried, outside Harare.  As I stood admiring the commanding view, Mike struck up conversation with the guide, an ex war veteran.  He asked him where he had fought and it soon became clear that the two of them had fought on the same hill, at the same time, on opposite sides.  They laughed and joked, swapped stories and shook hands.

I marveled at how forgiving both of them seemed 

Mike said:

“We both fought for the love of this country. It would stop being a beautiful place if I didn’t remember that.”

I was reminded of this attitude when I returned to Zimbabwe last year to set up Campfire Conversations.  I shared the welcome home story with the guides at the safari camp. They were surprised at my surprise and one said:

“We don’t blame you for leaving – we would have if we could have.  What we appreciate is you have come back.”

That night, as guests and guides sat round the crackling fire on the deck overlooking the waterhole, one of the guides, Eustace, asked me where I was born.  When I told him he laughed and said, “me too.”  Next thing he was sat beside me and we spent the evening talking as “brother and sister from Fort Victoria.”

Eustace, like Mike and the war veteran and the Immigration Officer, seemed much more interested in what we had in common, than what divided us.  They focused on the positive and on the relationship and they avoided blame.

I see blame as the opposite of forgiveness

Brené Brown, describes blame as:

“a way of discharging anger and trying to assert control when we’re fearful.”

When this happens there can be no relationship, no connection and no change. Which brings me back to my clients.

Change is made harder if we can’t let go of the past

One of the biggest struggles in achieving change in organisations is to get the people involved to acknowledge the past, accept it and move forward without blame.

Sometimes our need to forgive is so subtle

We all have people we work with who we struggle to connect with, who might have done something we disagreed with or who broke our trust in some way. It’s easy to carry that negative feeling with us to every encounter, which only perpetuates that feeling of disconnection.

Offering acceptance, being curious and forgiving the past, are the quickest ways of re-connecting and the very first step towards real change.

(Image: Heroes Acre, May 1989)

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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