American Association of Christian Counselors
American Association of Christian Counselors

Helping Your Clients REACH Forgiveness: Shocking Findings You Need to Know

By Everett L. Worthington, Jr.

If you are in counseling practice, I’ll bet big bucks you see quite a few people who have issues with forgiveness. I’ll also bet that you work with them from time to time to help them forgive and that your clients often do forgive. I’m sure you can come up with some very dramatic examples of people whose lives have been dramatically changed by forgiving those against whom they have held grudges for years. In this article, I’m going to first talk a bit about statistical reasoning (but very few numbers, I promise), but if you’ll wade through that brief section, I’ll tell you very practical ways that you can have even more success helping people forgive than you now have.

This statistical example comes from Daniel Kahneman’s (2011) most recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Work with me on this. Did you know that, in the United States last year, the lowest prevalence of kidney cancer occurs in mostly rural, Midwestern, mostly Republican counties? Are you surprised? Probably not, as you think about it. Obviously, the Republican part of the equation is just statistical chance, not causal. But in rural, Midwest counties the air quality, lifestyle, and lack of urban stress are likely contributors to the low incidence of kidney cancer.

Here’s a second fact. Did you know that the highest prevalence of kidney cancer occurs in (wait for it) rural, Midwestern, mostly Republican counties? Surprised? Well, you can also believe this because probably SES is lower so there is less access to healthcare, diet is poorer, and the use of tobacco and alcohol in those counties is probably higher than in other places.

Actually, your mind operates according to what cognitive psychologists call System 1 and System 2 thinking. (Research psychologists have a knack for naming things cleverly, don’t they?) System 1 thinking is intuitive and all-or-nothing. It easily constructs intuitive cause-and-effect relationships based on the information available—even when (as in the example of kidney cancer) no real cause and effect is operating. System 2 cognition, on the other hand, is rational and is hard work. So we often don’t use System 2 rigorously. Instead, we deed our reasoning over to the intuitive System 1. We think we are reasoning carefully because we can construct post hoc logical stories using System 2 logic to explain the intuitions of System 1.
Basically, the truth is there is no causal relationship between size or location of the sample and prevalence of kidney cancer. These findings that both the lowest and highest prevalence of kidney cancer are in rural Midwestern counties (though not the same counties and next year, they will occur in different counties—but still rural Midwestern counties) are due to sampling using small samples.

Think of this statistical example, which might have you in PTSD flashbacks to stats. It’s like drawing four marbles from a huge container containing exactly half red and half white marbles. Chances are 12.5% that you would draw extreme combinations—all four red or all four white marbles. But if you drew a bigger sample—not four, but seven marbles—the chances of drawing extreme combinations (all seven red or all seven white) are only 1.56%. That is, by increasing the sample size from four to seven (less than doubling it) you reduce the likelihood of extremes by a factor of eight! Big samples help give more stable estimates of probability. The difference between samples of 1000 and 2000 don’t matter much, but with small numbers, the difference between samples of 10 and 20 means you’ll find more extremes.

In practice, we are dealing with fairly small samples of clients who (1) have a clinically relevant problem with forgiveness, (2) ask you to treat it, and (3) respond dramatically either by no change or life transforming forgiveness. You might have 10 to 20 such cases in a year.

Clinical research deals with huge samples. In 2005, a review found that over 40 samples were used to test the effectiveness of forgiveness interventions. At about 50 to 100 people per study, that is about 3000 people treated to promote forgiveness and measured carefully rather than relying on our impressions as clinicians. (Sadly, it is an established fact also that counselors evaluate that their clients have changed after counseling much more optimistically than clients themselves or third-party evaluators report.) By 2012, a meta-analysis underway at the present involves over 6000 people who have been rigorously treated and tested for response to forgiveness interventions.

What do the findings show? First, regardless of individual, couple, family, or group treatments, treated people forgive more than before treatment. Second, on the average, they forgive at about 0.1 of a standard deviation (SD) per hour of treatment. Thus, if you work with a person intensely on forgiveness for two one-hour weekly sessions, the person will increase forgiveness 0.2 SDs. Third, I describe the steps of promoting forgiveness using an acrostic, REACH. R=Recall the Hurt. E=Emotionally replace the negative emotions by positive emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion or love. A=Altruistic forgiveness is experienced, for the good of the offender, not merely for the good of the forgiver. C=Commit to the forgiveness experienced. H=Hold onto forgiveness one experiences, even when doubts occur. We teach those steps explicitly. But, virtually ALL treatments of forgiveness use the same steps. Meta-analyses of 40 samples show that virtually all effective treatments that help clients forgive use those five elements. Successful forgiveness also uses three other elements: (1) defines forgiveness with the client, usually as making a decision to act differently and as changing their emotions toward the offender; (2) helps the person make a decision to forgive; and (3) employs other methods the counselor thinks will work (like praying with or for the client, assigning reading or Bible study, asking the client to write a forgiveness letter, etc.). The particular program—whether it is the easy-to-remember-and-use REACH model or some other one—makes less difference than the amount of time the client seriously spends trying to work through forgiving. Most psychoeducational groups are 6 to 8 hours. Some are as long as 12 to 20 hours. Literally, a six-hour group will produce 0.6 SD of change; a twelve hour group, 1.2 SDs; a twenty-hour group, 2.0 SDs. (To put this in perspective, successful psychotherapy for a half year or more, on the average, gets people to change about 0.8 SDs on measures like depression or anxiety.)

So, I recommend the following. First, work with the person on forgiving in individual psychotherapy as long as you can afford and as long as the client feels it is helpful. Second, establish a REACH Forgiveness psychoeducational group within your practice or church to promote forgiveness. If you want free downloadable and modifiable any way you want groups, you can download leader manuals and participant manuals FREE at (Did I mention that these are without any cost?) If you want to see how I run the groups, send $4 (all of which goes to my Department for shipping, handling and postage) to me at Box 842018, Richmond, VA 23284-2018). I’ll send you two one-hour training DVDs. This REACH Forgiveness program works, as has been found in 22 independent published studies (11 from our lab and 11 from other labs). Furthermore, there are many additional studies going on throughout the world right now—in colleges, in churches, and in counseling practices.

You can help your clients forgive even more deeply, thoroughly, and lastingly. Keep working with your clients in counseling as you have been doing, or add elements of the RREACH Forgiveness model to what you do. And also add REACH Forgiveness psychoeducational groups to your practice or church.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2003). Forgiving and reconciling: Bridges to wholeness and hope. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.