Accountability has gotten a bad rap. American culture sees accountability as a punishment, and forgiveness as a sign of a good person.
I have a different take.
Here are samples of the same conversation: one from a forgiveness perspective, one from an accountability perspective, using the random names Mike and Jim.
Mike spills the milk on the table.
Jim, upset, points out Mike’s milk is soaking into Jim’s papers!
Mike denies he spilled the milk, and/or 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 frantically works to keep his remaining papers dry, and in exasperation calls Mike to Get A Towel!
Mike wrings his hands crying “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 a towel himself and cleans up the mess, sad/angry/disappointed/upset/ that Mike didn’t admit to his own mess or in any way help to clean it up.
Mike pleads “Will you forgive me?”
Mike spills the milk on the table, and 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.”
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.
Forgiveness brings out personal characteristics such as the inability to take responsibility, inflexibility, lack of empathy, neediness, denial, defensiveness, excuses, blame, guilt, and pride. Reactions are exasperation, disappointment, feeling devalued, and feeling unheard. There is a mutual mistrust and imbalance of power, where Mike feels like a victim 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/look ‘good’, Jim won’t trust Mike in the future since Mike doesn’t take accountability/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, then listen. 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/hurt 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.
Article by Barb Hughes