Relationship Repair: A Step by Step Guide

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Reengaging in a tense situation can be scary.

What if he doesn’t listen? What if she makes you even angrier? But even a tough conversation is better than letting a situation fester.

Damaged relationships abound in the workplace. That doesn’t mean that the status quo is acceptable. Whether you are dealing with a one-time incident or a situation of ongoing strain, part of being successful is knowing how to effectively repair broken relationships.

The quality of our work relationships determines how effective we are, how successful we are, and how happy we are.

Part 1: Start from Within.

Before you think about engaging the other person, take an honest look at yourself.

  • Recognize what you are feeling. Naming what you are feeling – hurt, sad, angry, betrayed, or any other emotion—can help you get to the core issue. If you can’t put a name on it, pay attention to how you are responding physically. A noticeable rise in blood pressure, getting red in the face, and feeling tense are signs that something is wrong. Before you act or complain to someone else, stop and ask yourself “What’s going on? What’s causing me to react this way?”
  • Cool off. Addressing the issue while you’re in the grip of emotion is a recipe for disaster. Avoid the dramatic satisfaction of “having it out.” You or the other person may say or do things that you will later regret, and an already strained relationship will get worse.
  • Step back and look at your contribution. Objectively assess how you may have contributed to the situation. What might you have done (or not done) to make things turn out differently?
  • Identify what you need from the other person. It rarely works to try to make the other person wrong. Instead of seeking victory or an admission of wrongdoing, think about what you want the other person to do going forward. Do you need the other person to invite you to relevant meetings? To be on time? To listen? To give you recognition for a job well done?
  • Get curious about the other person. In a relationship, it’s not all about you. It’s about you and the other person. What has been going on for him or her? What are her concerns? What stresses might he be under?

Part 2: Reengage with the Other Person.

Reengaging in a tense situation can be scary. What if he doesn’t listen? What if she makes you even angrier? But even a tough conversation is better than letting a situation fester. You can’t control the other person, but you can control how you set up the conversation to allow for a productive dialog.

    • Establish a common goal. Think of some goal that you both genuinely share. This gets a conversation started in the right direction by focusing on similarities rather than differences. I’d love to talk to you about how we can make this project as successful as possible.”
      “I think that what we both want is to work more effectively together.”
    • Recognize what’s going well. Even the most stressed relationships usually have positive aspects. Acknowledging what’s going well provides positive feedback and lets the other person know what she should continue doing.
      “You’ve been great about giving me a heads up about changes that could affect my project deadline. I really appreciate that.”
    • Explain how you feel. Describe how certain behaviors have affected you. Acknowledge that the other person’s intent may be very different from the actual impact.

“I was surprised to learn about the meeting you had this week that involved my project, and to be honest, I was upset that I wasn’t included. I don’t know why I didn’t know about it. What happened?”
“I believe you meant well and wanted to be respectful of my time, but it made me pretty angry when I found out about the meeting after it happened.”

  • Talk about what you’d like to be different. Ask for what you want. Sometimes the other person can do small things that make a big difference.
    “Even if you think it’s not worth my time to attend the meeting, please let me know about it and give me the option. I may not need to go myself, but I might want someone else from my team to be there.”
  • Collaborate to find a solution. Collaboration removes blaming and helps to create a dialog to improve the relationship now and in the future.
    “How can we make this work better? What do you need from me to make this happen?”
    “How should we handle this the next time a similar issue comes up?”
  • Give the floor to the other person. Any meaningful relationship reflects the needs of both people. So when you have expressed your concerns, have the courage to be open to your colleague’s needs.
    “Is there anything on your mind you would like to talk about that could help us work better together?”

Repairing a relationship takes courage and commitment. If you can show the way and model constructive behavior, everyone will benefit. People tolerate damaged relationships, but only because they don’t know they have the power to improve them.



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