Greg McKeown (00:04):
Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. And I am here with you on this journey to learn how to understand each other, to get better at negotiation and conflict resolution. Have you ever held on to a grudge against people who hurt you? Have you ever wasted precious mental energy being angry, hurt, annoyed, or even resentful? How long has the wound been festering? Weeks, months, years, decades? Today, I’ve invited Chris Williams onto the show to share his story about resolving personal conflict, what he has learned from it, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to let go of a personal conflict and grudge that you have been holding onto so that you can reinvest that emotional energy back into what’s really essential to you. Let’s get to it.
Greg McKeown (01:25):
Remember to teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within 24 to 48 hours of listening. Write down some notes to help you share this effectively. Chris Williams already knew what mattered in his life. His family weren’t just the most important thing for him. It was the only thing. Then one freezing night in February 2007, the car he was driving was hit broadside by an erratic teenage driver. William’s wife, their unborn baby, his nine-year-old daughter, and his 11-year-old son were all killed. His six-year-old son was seriously injured. And his 14-year-old son, who was at a friend’s house at the time of the crash, would never be the same after that day. We would all expect Chris to be swallowed up, body and soul, by this experience. None of us would fault him for being overcome by fury. It’s the most natural thing to imagine, his resentment closing around him, scarring him and following him around for decades, which is what made William’s choice in that moment so breathtaking. Minutes after the crash, sitting amid the twisted metal and broken bodies, Williams had an eye of the storm moment of clarity. Not the next day, not a year later, but right there at this unimaginably violent scene. He saw two possible lives ahead of him. Chris, welcome to the show. Let’s get right into this.
Chris Williams (03:09):
Greg McKeown (03:10):
What was your first thought in that moment?
Chris Williams (03:15):
So after the impact, it was just immediate shock. And there was a desperation there and just trying to find a pulse on my wife’s arm, you know, not really being able to move much because of the nature of the injuries I had sustained, but just desperately trying to get my hand over under hers to see if there was any pulse there. And as I did that, I saw that she had sustained a significant injury on her right side on her elbow and that it was not bleeding. And I just knew that that was not a good sign. And as I’m desperately fully feeling for the pulse, I’m also, you know, what about my children? I’m looking in the back seat. My son’s got an injury that he sustained that’s not bleeding as well. You know, once again, a very bad indication that you know, the heart’s not beating.
Chris Williams (03:56):
So with all of this kind of immediate sense of dread and panic and pain, and hurt, and then just shock, not understanding, you know, what just happened, what’s going on? How did this person, you know, this car get into this situation? How do we get into this situation? I think the one thing that surrounded me was just this sole compressing grief. I mean, if you took all of those emotions and all of that and started to add it together, it just, um, it was amazing how fast I absolutely just felt like I wanted to die as well. I was just done. And in fact, at one point, when I couldn’t find the pulse, and I just started to realize that they were, they were gone. There was no amount of CPR or emergency assistance that would bring them back. I remember at one point just kind of pressing my head against the headrest and just trying to will my soul out of its body.
Chris Williams (04:48):
I mean, I was so done in that moment and so full of pain that I wanted it to end immediately. And so, yeah, that was just an incredibly difficult experience to go through. It’s difficult to go back and remember that; however, it’s interesting in that it didn’t last long because, in the midst of that, I heard this groaning, the sound actually. I mean, I could hear people outside, you know, that had come to try and assist, and they weren’t giving any assistance. They knew, too, that this was a catastrophic situation. But in the midst of all this, there’s this groaning sound. And as I’m trying to, to will my, you know, soul out of its body, and as I’m going through this pain, the sound, you know, it almost started to be irritating.
Chris Williams (05:37):
It was just like, you know, on top of everything now I’ve got this, you know, this annoying sound that something or somebody is making, and it didn’t seem like it was, it wasn’t for my children. So I wasn’t, like I’m saying, you know, stop, but it wasn’t until I kind of started to try and focus on that and to get it to stop that I realized it was me making that noise. I mean, there was just such a grief, such a tone of sadness and pain that was coming from me that I wasn’t even that, you know, fully aware of. And in the midst of that situation, I remember just looking out the driver’s side window at the car that had struck us and, you know, immediately realizing because it’s on its roof, right. It’s upside down. It’s hit us. It’s flipped.
Chris Williams (06:15):
And I couldn’t see the driver of that vehicle, but just realizing that, you know, if I’m in this pain, they’re going to be experiencing this pain as well. So, you know, there was at least that sense that somebody else outside of my car had been impacted by this devastating situation as well. But it was, as I was looking at that car, that I heard as if it was spoken over my shoulder, and it was presented to my mind as if it was somebody there speaking to me. I heard three words, and the words were let it go. And I knew in that moment, as soon as I heard that presented to my mind that way that I had a choice to make. I mean, given the pain I was experiencing given this noise I was making, given the fact that somebody else was involved in this and had caused this to occur.
Chris Williams (07:04):
I had to make a choice very, very quickly about how I was going to move forward from this situation. I was unsuccessful at getting my spirit out of its body. I was unsuccessful at being able to kind of control that pain in the moment to get it to stop, to get that noise that I was making to stop. And with all of that combined, and with that pressure, that soul compressing pressure I was in, it’s as if my way forward was to let it go. And what’s interesting about those three words is that I knew exactly what they meant. It was a very concise way of saying there’s two paths forward here for me. I mean, am I going to be healed and choose to move forward in a way that’s positive in a way that allows me to heal and move forward?
Chris Williams (07:52):
Or am I going to try and go it alone? Am I going to try and go down a path of anger and in a way that continues these feelings of sadness? And so that’s the decision I had to make in that instant is to let it go, to choose, to heal and move forward in a way that let go of, you know, much of the desire to try and control the outcome. But knowing that I couldn’t control it, I could only focus on those things that I could focus on and control. So that was the decision I had to make in the car seated next to my family was to let it go.
Greg McKeown (08:28):
Embedded in that phrase, let it go. That came to you. It sounds like there was a whole set of meaning immediately brought to your mind.
Chris Williams (08:39):
Greg McKeown (08:41):
And in that meaning, you saw two choices in the midst of the agony. The first path was one where you indulged in your rage and bitterness that would be born out of that moment. Choosing that future meant that you would be carrying the burden of those emotions for the rest of your life. It meant passing on those burdens to your surviving sons, inflicting emotional scars that might never heal that’s path one. The second path was one in which you were free from those burdens, one where you could be present for your surviving children as they recovered from the physical and psychological trauma they had sustained. It was one filled with purpose and meaning.
Chris Williams (09:34):
So at its core, at its essence, the let it go meant going forward on those two paths. There were certainly things that I was not going to be able to control going forward. In fact, if anything, for me to heal appropriately, I could only focus on those things that I could absolutely control. And that was the choice is, do I want to focus on the path where I’m trying to control things over which I have absolutely no control? So, as an example, the justice system. So, it turned out that it was a young seventeen-year-old boy that had been drinking that night, driving under the influence. He’s alone in his car. He’s blacking out as he’s going. Hits our car. Four people are killed. How could I control the outcome of his justice?
Chris Williams (10:22):
How could I control the outcome of whether or not he’s penitent enough or has paid enough of a price for that? You know, how could I control just that whole path of justice should look like? What if my son were to die? You know, can I control whether my six-year-old that survived? Or could I control whether or not he does live? Could I control how my family, my extended family reacts to this? I mean, there’s so much that you can’t control. And as I talk to people who experience traumatic situations and they get stuck, it’s typically when they get stuck on trying to fix things or control things that they absolutely have no control over. In other words, you hear statements like, “Oh, I’m not going to forgive this person until he’s paid for what he’s done.”
Chris Williams (11:04):
Well, there’s no way that decision to forgive or not forgive is going to influence or control the way that person committed is going to move through it. So, yes, it is a decision to basically let everything go that I had no control over and to focus on the things that I could control because the nature of the accident was that because of somebody else’s choice, I lost control. I lost control of the path of my family that we were on. I lost control of being able to keep my wife safe and my children safe, lost control of my future, for sure, and what that was going to look like. You know, we go through lives with kind of this illusion that we have everything in control and yet, you know, life just tends to surprise us daily, that, we’re not. You know, that we have very limited control actually. So it’s an exercise in letting go of those things that we don’t control and focusing on those things that we absolutely do control.
Greg McKeown (12:05):
This is an important paradox. By giving up control, by letting go of the things you couldn’t control, you actually seem to take control of the things you could control. And it puts me in mind to a question I wrote about in Effortless that we should ask ourselves: What job have I hired this grudge to do? According to the late Clayton Christensen, the Harvard business school professor, people don’t really buy products or services; rather, they hire them to do a job in a similar way. What you are saying makes me think that we hire a grudge to fulfill an emotional need that is not currently being met, but as we conduct a performance review, we discover grudges perform poorly. Grudges cost us resources but don’t deliver a satisfying return on our investment. So we must relieve a grudge of its duties.
Chris Williams (13:04):
No, that’s an excellent point because I think what they try to hire those grudges to do for them is to give them a sense of not only control but to give them a sense that somehow things are going to work out. You know, the individual suffered a tremendous injustice. It has caused them a tremendous amount of pain. And somehow, you know, holding that grudge gives them a sense that, “Hey, I’m going to control my healing going forward.” That somehow, this is going to help me heal. If I can exercise this kind of control over the person that hurt me, and if I can kind of hurt them back, then somehow, you know, watching them suffer is going to help me regain some of the peace or help or happiness that they’ve lost. The problem with that is it’s false.
Chris Williams (13:56):
It’s absolutely false because, at the end of the day, you cannot control that other individual, whether or not they feel remorse for what they’ve done or whether or not they pay, even if they go to jail, even if they go through all of that. I mean, there’s no control over whether or not they feel pain in that experience of going through the justice system. And so, by trying to, as a victim, to insert power over that, it’s just an absolute false bargain. At the end of the day, there’s really no peace that will come from that.
Greg McKeown (14:26):
I think the idea here is to hold a sort of performance review of our grudges. So if we’ve hired a grudge to make us feel in control, we can sometimes try to prove to ourselves and others that we are right and they are wrong. At first, this can make us feel superior, even powerful. It gives us a sense of control, but one that is fleeting and false because, in reality, a grudge controls you like Worm Tongue in service of the King of Rohan in, you know, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A grudge pretends to be subservient to us but really takes over. It also keeps us trapped in a never-ending loop of blame, self-righteousness, and self-loathing. So, as we do a performance evaluation, that promise that a grudge will give us control is exactly opposite. It doesn’t perform that responsibility well at all. We ought to fire the grudge.
Greg McKeown (15:28):
Maybe there are times we hire a grudge to give us attention. When people hear our story of victimhood, we get their support and sympathy. We’re, in that sense, incentivized to tell our story again and again. This is easy and even satisfying in the moment, but it delivers an unsatisfying ending behind the sympathy people express. There is also fatigue. This is one reason people have to always find a new set of people to tell their story to what you did. What’s so striking is that you chose to fire your grudge almost immediately. And that made all the difference because you were immediately able to take all of that mental and emotional energy and return it back to the things that actually matter most. You turned a negative into a positive. Winter was turned into summer.
Chris Williams (16:27):
If good can come out of evil, if good can come out of the horrible experiences that we’re asked to go through, then perhaps that’s the better path to choose rather than the vindictive, the justice, the wanting other people to pay and getting stuck in that. Perhaps if anything did ever happen to me, and this is what my thought process was in 2005, 2006, was that you know, that would be the process. The path to choose would be of letting it go. The other thing I thought was interesting as an experience is very quickly just of OJ Simpson. We all, you know, growing up with that verdict and what had happened with he and Nicole and his murdering of Nicole. What struck me as interesting is every time they would go back for either a hearing to see if he was going to get released from prison or, you know, just the hearing itself, it always showed the Simpson family and them, of course wanting absolute justice.
Chris Williams (17:18):
They wanted him to pay for what he had done to Nicole. And what I saw there was just this consistent message of, you know, we’re in pain. We want him to suffer. We can’t move on until he pays for what he’s done to Nicole. And so it was kind of the opposite of the spectrum, of experiences and kind of really feeling bad for that family, that they were stuck, that they couldn’t move on because they had chosen to put their path of healing, to be dependent on whether or not somebody else pays for what they’ve done. So, in other words, they kind of seated their freedom. They ceded their ability to move forward to the very person that had caused them the grief in the first place. And I think what I learned from that was that it is a very bad bargain to make.
Chris Williams (18:09):
That is a very bad way to determine how to move forward and heal, not being able to control any of those things. You just mentioned, you know, the other person, their justice, or their path forward, or whether or not they feel remorse, et cetera. You’ve put yourself into, you know, for those who have been offended and choose to heal that way. You’ve absolutely put yourself in the mercy of not only things you can’t control, but really things that are quite negative that will continue to tie you back to the past. Which for the people that are offended, it will be a very difficult and sad and hard past to continue to revisit over and over and over again. So the question is, looking into the future, do you want to take that poison that those ill experiences that, you know, very difficult thing that you probably don’t want to keep revisiting over and over and over again, in a negative way, do you want to tie that to your healing going forward and the person that offended you, or do you want to let all of that go, strip it all away?
Chris Williams (19:08):
And you know, in a sense kind of with a clean, not so much a clean slate, but at least a very healthy and clean thought process, just take a look at all the things you can control and say, this is what I’m going to move forward with. You know, it, and for me, it was my surviving boys. It was the friends and family that I wanted to have close to me and my healing process. I did not want that young man part of the healing process. So that was one of the things that I kind of pushed aside. I did not want his justice process to be part of my healing process. So I pushed that all aside as well out of necessity. I had to be a part of it, but even there, when the judge asked me for some input as to whether the young man should be tried as an adult or a juvenile, I punted it right back to him.
Chris Williams (19:53):
I just said, you know, that’s your decision. I’ll support whatever you decide. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks as the judge. But even in that, I wasn’t going to insert myself. And I think for a lot of people that can’t forgive, they would be, you know, so anxious to want to be able to insert themselves, to control, to regain that control over the person that offended him. And for me, like my letting it go was basically pushing all of that completely out of my life. And then choosing to move forward with the most positive remembrances of my wife and my children, the most positive individuals and people around me, and then the most positive experiences going forward. I think there’s one other thing that’s so important to consider, and that choice is what kinda legacy are you going to leave?
Chris Williams (20:39):
You know, is that really the legacy you want as years and years of not only grieving but, you know, just anger and desire for retribution and justice and everything else. Or is it going to be a legacy of healing of letting go and focusing on the things you can control and then giving those people that are close to you and that love you your emotional energy and attention in an unfettered way? And what’s fascinating about this is this is a story that should have been so very obvious to me that I, I don’t know why it wasn’t, but, you know, I’m a, I’m a man of faith. I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And the Christian story is that Jesus Christ came and suffered so unjustly and suffered so that I wouldn’t have to. Or in other words, the Christian story for me is a story of exactly that. It’s a story of tremendously unjust pain and suffering whereby there is a tremendous amount of good that comes from it.
Chris Williams (21:36):
And I don’t know why that wasn’t one of the things that I was focused on before. But it’s been since the crash that as I go back and I say, you know, that’s certainly there is an archetype for that in the Christian faith. But it’s not just limited to that. I mean, there are countless stories of so much good that comes from a very trying time. Or it could be the story, the rags to riches story, right. I mean, this plays out in movies and other things. I don’t know why I never considered it as something I needed to adopt fully in my life until of course, the crash happens. And then, you know, I see it happen out I’m, I dunno, I was so surprised about it, but now realizing that it has really made it a tremendous focus for me and my healing going forward.
Chris Williams (22:23):
So the question I ask is it has not been about has that boy paid or the price, or am I getting justice out of this, or has that served its purpose, et cetera. It’s the question’s really flipped now to be one of what’s the greater good that can come from that experience that I went through today. In other words, who is it that I can help? Whose prayer can I be an answer to for somebody that’s stuck in this situation? Or who else could I assist in a positive way to help them, you know, either with their path of forgiveness or with letting it go, or with mending and healing and lifting and binding and bringing goodness out of it. And the motivation for that is because the more good that comes there, but the more it’s going to help me, the more it makes my wife and my children’s passing mean something versus potentially meaning nothing. That’s so important for me right now. So the question I ask every day actually is just, you know, whose prayer can I be an answer to? Or who can I help? Or who can I assist today? Especially somebody that’s in a situation where they can’t forgive or can’t let it go or can’t move forward.
Greg McKeown (23:35):
My sense is that when people hurt us when we hold onto grudges, part of the reason for that is we are asking less than helpful questions. Maybe we ask, why did they do this? Or how was I so naive to allow it to happen? Or how can I get even? How can I get back to being on top? But these questions keep us sitting in our suffering keepers controlled by the Worm Tongue grudge that is siding off our energy all the time and whispering to us. I think, lying to us that if we ever let go of this, somehow we’ll be less. We’ll be weaker, whereas the opposite is true. We could ask ourselves, what would my life be like, free completely from this grudge, this burden? What is the greater good that will come out of it? How will this change my story? What would this mean if I were able to forgive them? How would that make this story more compelling, more powerful, and take my life in an upward momentum? Of course, we don’t have to go through something this extreme to experience the freedom from unforgiveness.
Greg McKeown (25:04):
I think forgiveness is the leverage point where you’re letting go of the need for justice. You’re letting go of trying to control it. But I think it’s also a gateway to something much better. Forgiveness doesn’t end with just letting go. Forgiveness includes this post-traumatic growth syndrome that has been identified. I think it allows that to be possible. Until you forgive, you can’t see it turned into good, but it can be the suffering challenges of the past can work for our good. And the question you’ve given us is a very tangible, sort of unusual way of thinking about forgiveness, but surely that is a way to make life less full of suffering, to make the challenges of life less difficult in the future, to make even the hardest things, a little easier. And in that spirit, a little more effortless. Do you have a final word for us?
Chris Williams (26:11):
Well, I think the final word would be, you know, there’s something that happens when you go down that path of anger and sadness and everything else, and that is the blinders come on, the focus becomes the pain. And in that situation, when the blinders are on like that, that’s basically going to be your life. That’s your path forward. And that anger, that pain, that negativity to your point, I mean, nobody really wants to be around that long term. It is certainly not going to help the person heal. But it gives them a sense of control. It’s like, this is what I’m focused on. This is what I’m going to do, and this is my path forward. And it’s, it’s a very negative path forward, but it’s their path, nonetheless, you know, asking the question, what’s the greater good that can come out of this.
Chris Williams (26:53):
Of course, you know the test will be there’s no world great, good. That’s going to come of that whatsoever. But letting go is also a letting go of expectation because, with the blinders on, there’s an expectation that there’s going to be some peace at the end of this somewhere. And I think it’s a false hope, but that’s what the person usually thinks is that if I go down this path of anger, there’s going to be peace somewhere. I can just feel it, but it never comes. But when you let it go, you basically open yourself up to all sorts of possibilities, and you can do that in a way that is hopeful and optimistic and very positive. And the beautiful miracle I think of that type of approach when you’re not focused on the anger, but you’re focused on the art of life that is filled with opportunity and hope, and everything else are those amazing experiences that will come to people that are unhindered by those blinders.
Chris Williams (27:46):
I take the press conferences as one of the first examples. I mean, I didn’t ask for that. I didn’t say, Hey, I’d love to have a press conference and issue the challenge. It was just; it’s, it’s something that came from my willingness to let it go and be open, be open to whatever the outcomes may be, but to approach those with a notion of, you know, a, I’m going ng to focus on the things that I can control and everything else I’m going to let go. And then B, I’m going to do it with optimism, with hope, with an expectation of good for the future. And that’s when miracles happen, you know, we call it miracles, but that’s one of these things that just fall in our laps, that are so positive and so wonderful, and impact others. And I think that’s a wonderful way to live life. And so that’s kind of how I’ve tried to approach every day since is, you know, keep those blinders off where I limit myself too much and be open to the possibilities, be open with an expectation that great things are going to happen. I just have to be able to see them and react to them. And as I do that, you know, boy, there’s just more good that comes from that February 9th experience.
Greg McKeown (28:53):
Chris Williams. Thank you.
Chris Williams (28:55):
Oh, you’re very welcome. Thank you so much for having me on
Greg McKeown (28:57):
To everybody listening today, let’s go back to the questions from the beginning. Have you ever held onto a grudge against people who hurt you? Have you wasted precious mental and emotional energy being angry, hurt, annoyed, or resentful? How long has that wound been festering? Weeks? Months? Years? Decades? What percentage of your mental and emotional energy have you allowed to get tied up, consumed by things you cannot even control? And what would happen if you could get a rebate on all of that time and energy and resource and creativity and curiosity? And even if it were possible to fully forgive, to see both sides of the relationship heal, what might be possible? Then whatever has happened to you in life, whatever hardship, whatever pain they pale in comparison to the power, you have to choose what to do now. You and I may well have held onto grudges longer than Chris did in this key moment, but whatever we’ve done in the past doesn’t affect what we do right now in this moment.
Greg McKeown (30:21):
This can be our moment, our choice to let go. Not for them, not because they deserve it, not because it’s totally fair or fair at all. We let go to become free. Again, we let go as quickly as possible so that we don’t have to pay the price a hundred times over. Let’s agree with those that hurt us as quickly as possible so that we don’t get dragged into a higher and higher cost. In each moment, we have a choice. Do we choose the heavier or, the lighter path? Chris Williams had that choice, that dramatic moment. And it proves the truism that no matter how hard things are in life, we can make them even harder by holding onto the grudge, by nursing that resentment. But similarly, no matter how hard a situation is in life, no matter how deeply a person has hurt us, we can always make it a little easier.
Greg McKeown (31:34):
And each of us has, as Robert Frost said in his classic poem, promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. So let’s let go of the grudges of the personal conflicts so that we can pursue those promises. We have to keep that essential, special mission. How why for letting it go is not because others deserve it, but because we have important, special, unique work that only we can do. Only you can do that. Thank you really, thank you for listening. If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcast. The first five people to write a review will receive a signed copy of Effortless. Where on page 23 in chapter three, you can learn more about how to actually hold a performance evaluation of your personal conflict. Just send a photo of your review to email@example.com. Remember to subscribe to this podcast so that you can receive the next episode.
Greg McKeown (32:47):
And also, if you only do one thing, subscribe to the 1 Minute Wednesday newsletter. It’s completely free. You can access it at gregmckeown.com/1MW. And if you’d like to be a part of a live series where we’re going to practice what we are learning here in this podcast in a way that we actually develop the skills necessary to apply it, sign up at essentialism.com/negotiation. And I’ll let you know as soon as we’re ready to run the first series. I look forward to continuing this conversation next time in such a way that we can build together a movement.