I think accountability has gotten a bad rap. American culture sees accountability as a punishment. American culture sees forgiveness as a sign of a good person, and that forgiving helps the forgiver as much- if not more- than the person being forgiven.
I have a different take on these two words.
Here are samples of the same conversation: one from a forgiveness perspective, one from an accountability perspective.
Mike spills the milk on the table.
Jim, upset, points out that Mike spilled the milk and it’s soaking into Jim’s papers on the table
Mike denies he spilled the milk. Mike then makes excuses for why he spilled the milk: he was tired; he was distracted; he didn’t see the milk there; it was someone else’s fault for placing the milk on the table in the first place.
Jim, only half listening, is frantically trying to keep his remaining papers dry and thinking how to get a towel to clean up the rest of the milk before it causes more damage. Jim in exasperation calls out “Get A Towel!”
Mike wrings his hands and cries “don’t be mad at me, it wasn’t my INTENT to spill the milk, I really AM a good person, I TRY my best, EVERYONE makes mistakes, don’t hold it against me!”
Jim gets the towel himself and cleans up the mess. Jim is sad/angry/disappointed/upset/ that Mike didn’t admit to his own mess or in any way help to clean it up. How Mike made his mistake Jim’s problem, and when Jim asked Mike to help clean up his own mess Mike put the guilt on JIM. Jim brings this up.
Mike asks to Jim: “Will you forgive me?”
Mike spills the milk on the table. Mike immediately says “Jim – grab your papers off the table!” Mike quickly fetches a towel to clean up the mess.
Jim quickly picks up his papers, focusing on the most important ones.
Mike cleans up the mess, dries the table, and says “Hey man, sorry if I ruined any of your papers – is there anything I can do to make it right?”
Jim answers gratefully “I really appreciate your quick action to clean up the accident. I saved most of the papers, but a few got wet. I’ll dry them out and check to see if I need to re-write any. Thanks for asking though.”
From the above conversation, accountability brings out personal characteristics such as strength, resilience, quick thinking, problem solving, caring, helpfulness, satisfaction, self-mastery and concern. Reactions to this caring response are trust, thankfulness, appreciation, and feeling valued. If Mike wasn’t aware he spilled the milk, as soon as Jim brought it up, Mike would have switched into accountability mode and went straight to cleaning up the mess. There is mutual respect and trust with an interaction where a person takes personal responsibility and accountability for accidents or hurts they have caused. Both parties feel like winners.
From the above conversation, the forgiveness set up brings out for Mike personal characteristics such as inability to take responsibility, inflexibility, lack of empathy, neediness, denial, defensiveness, excuses, blame, guilt, and pride. Jim reacts (inwardly) with exasperation, disappointment, feeling devalued, and feeling unheard. There is a mutual mistrust and imbalance of power, where Mike feels like a victim of Jim even though Mike was the one who hurt/inconvenienced Jim. Jim is left in the uncomfortable position of being the ‘bad’ guy if he doesn’t offer forgiveness, and Mike is in the position of feeling weak. No one wins: Both feel they got the raw end of the stick. Even if Jim does say “I forgive you” to keep the peace and to look good, Mike may be relieved but Jim won’t trust Mike in the future if Mike doesn’t take accountability and responsibility for his actions.
My hypothesis is, if you have to ASK for forgiveness, you probably haven’t been accountable for your actions. Instead of asking for forgiveness, ask how you can make it right, listen, then take the action(s) that are available to you and make it right. Better yet – be accountable in the first place – it’s empowering! You’ll be in the position to make a positive difference, and the person you wronged will feel heard.
For everyday situations with kind caring empathic people, I think accountability should be the go-to power word, and forgiveness be an un-asked for gift given AFTER the person harmed feels heard.