Coach’s Corner Blog

4 Steps to Help You Let Go of the Past

May 17, 2018 by 1 Comment

Pointing Fingers

Marshall Goldsmith is perhaps the preeminent executive coach in America. A key part of his Stakeholder Centered Coaching model, which I now use, requires the client to identify one key goal that could have the greatest potential on that executive’s performance and to solicit feedback on their progress on a monthly basis. This model has proven to be incredibly effective in changing behavior.

A key element of the model requires the client to ask the stakeholders if they are willing to participate in the process. The first thing the model requires is that a stakeholder is willing to let go of the past and not allow that to shade their perceptions going forward. Although this makes perfect sense, in practice it is often not easy to do. It requires a leap of faith on the part of the stakeholder to give the executive the benefit of the doubt about their ability to change or shape their behavior for the better. Sometimes that is a tall order if the prior behavior had been particularly difficult or damaging. It’s not really asking for forgiveness, and that’s fortunate given how difficult that can be to find.

In Randy Pausch’s book, The Last Lecture, I found this interesting passage:

Moravian missionaries searched for a word for forgiveness in the Eskimo language. That’s when they discovered ‘issumagijoujungnainermik,’ a 24-letter tongue-twister which literally means ‘not being able to think about it anymore’. Genuine forgiveness is about moving on and refusing to think any more about what happened.

I am not going to explore the complex and challenging topic of forgiveness other than to share this wonderful quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

 The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

If letting go of the past may seem a tall order it is often because we refuse to be victims of the same behavior over and over, and we certainly have that right. So what I would like to discuss is a model for assertively asking another to cease harmful or ineffective behavior. We may choose to avoid potential conflict by not saying anything about these behaviors, but that’s like a license for the other person to continue.

The method is referred to as I-language assertion, based on the work of Thomas Gordon, and involves making a four-part statement in which you describe:

  1. WHEN: The other person’s behavior; an objective description of the other person’s behavior. We must say this without judgment or blame.
  2. THE EFFECT IS: Its effect on you; how the person’s behavior affects you.
  3. I FEEL: Your feelings; without accusation or blame.
  4. I’D PREFER: Your preferences in the situation; a description of the behavior you want to see. Instead of I’D PREFER you may also use, I’D LIKE or I WANT.

Here’s how you might use it to assert yourself when a friend or colleague is often late for lunch appointments:

  • WHEN you arrive late for our lunch appointment,
  • THE EFFECT IS that we lose our reservations and then have to rush through lunch.
  • I FEEL anxious about being late for other appointments later and disappointed that we are not able to catch up like we planned.
  • I’D PREFER that you show up on time or call ahead at least 30 minutes in advance so I can make adjustments.

By describing the other person’s behavior without judgment or blame, you are acting assertively. If you had told your lunch partner, “When you’re late for lunch, you really make me mad. Who do you think you are? What’s wrong with you?” you would have certainly made the person defensive with your blaming, aggressive tone.

This technique will help you determine when your feelings result from some violation of your rights and when they are caused by you trying to impose your own values and expectations on others.

In describing feelings, remember to state only the effect of the behavior on you. “I feel you are being unfair” is a judgment, not a feeling. Stated properly, this can very powerful. We often avoid speaking of feelings because we do not want to put more emotion into a difficult situation than necessary. But you have a right to express your feelings in a constructive manner and remember, no one can disagree with how YOU feel.

This model may seem artificial or too complex upon your initial review… but it is only 4 short sentences and I urge you to always write out, or at least carefully consider your words to ensure that they are not accusatorial or blame-oriented, but a straightforward, practical and constructive way to assert your perspective on things.

Once you have made your assertion, STOP TALKING! Give the other person time to consider what you have said and do not expect an immediate, or any, response. You’ve made your case and it will be up to them to adapt their behavior in their dealing with you.

Ask yourself:

  • Is there a pattern of behavior with another that is hurting our relationship?
  • Is this important enough to assert myself?
  • Am I willing to prepare what I want to say so it can be done in the most effective manner?
  • Do I want to learn a new skill that can serve me in all aspects of my life?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments below.

Adapted from: Mastering Assertiveness Skills, Elaina Zuker, Amacom, American Management Association, 1983, pg.63

Photo Credit: Newtown grafitti / CC


Sign up for my blog updates and never miss a post. I’ll send you a FREE eBook as a thank you.
  • By signing up you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy.


    Richard Borough May 26, 2018, 12:48 pm

    Yes indeed. Got to get the client or participant to agree and commit to letting go of the past or change is never going to happen. Then new behavior and new habits have a chance to improve performance,

    Richard Paris Borough, PhD


Leave a Comment