Even if you’re good at developing relationships, you may find yourself in a situation where a work relationship has been impacted by hidden agendas, conflicts, or personality clashes. Any further development to the relationship will be unlikely until you ask yourself three questions: Do I want to repair this relationship? Can it be repaired? How do I repair it? Let’s look at each.
Do I Want to Repair It?
Years ago, I facilitated a training session in which we discussed workplace relationships. One of the participants said, “I need people to get my job done. I can’t do it without them.” There are times, however, when people in positions of authority or influence can be toxic. If we need the person in question to do our job well, we need to repair the relationship to protect ourselves. The common advice says to get the toxic person out of your life, but in a work setting, that may not be possible. We need to make the best of a difficult situation.
Can It Be Repaired?
Relationships can be repaired when we approach the other individual with respect for their needs and interests. To effectively repair a relationship gone wrong, you need to understand what the other person wants and needs. You might have to set aside your own needs to do the right thing, but if all goes well, your needs and wants can still be met.
How Do I Repair It?
1. Find a time to talk. First, there’s the approach: “Do you have a minute? Can we talk?” Then, offer the issue statement: “We’ve hit some snags. I’m concerned that progress is being slowed because we’re not communicating well.” Then, a request: “I’d like to meet with you at your convenience to talk and find ways to improve our teamwork. Are you willing?” The other person may be reluctant; to sell the idea, acknowledge the objection, show how meeting benefits the other person’s self-interest, and repeat the request. For example, say, “I understand your concern. My hunch is that we may not totally understand each other’s point of view. I’d like to understand yours better. Can we give it a try?” Suggest some guidelines for the discussion: “Let’s limit interruptions so we can focus on the issue at hand. And let’s agree to try to find a solution we can both accept.”
2. Set the context. This involves removing any landmines that could blow up the effort to talk. Find a quiet place where interruptions are limited, make sure it’s comfortable, and consider having food and beverages available.
3. Talk it out. First, express appreciation: “Thanks for taking the time to meet. I’m hopeful we can find a solution that’s acceptable to both of us if we commit to staying at it long enough.” Next, identify the issue—and it should always be strictly a business issue: “We’ve hit some snags on the committee. I’m concerned progress is being slowed because we aren’t communicating well.” Or “I’d like us to resolve the difficulty we appear to be having in working together to ensure a good business outcome.”
Third, invite dialogue: “How do you see it? Help me understand your view of the situation.” Support conciliatory gestures by acknowledging any statement of vulnerability the other party volunteers. Say something such as, “I appreciate your saying that,” then offer something that establishes reciprocity. Then, wait for the breakthrough. If you bring empathy, emotional intelligence, and active listening to the conversation, a breakthrough is almost inevitable, even with the most toxic individuals.
4. Make a deal. You’ll know you’ve made a deal when you find a solution with shared sacrifices and compromise that benefit the relationship. A deal should include specific directives on what each of you will do.
Don’t keep score. The goal is not to resolve the past but to ensure a good business relationship going forward. If you are forced to discuss the past, focus on your interactions with the other party that contributed to the breakdown. This will help you understand what you can change to move forward. Don’t try to change the other person, and don’t get into the blame game.
Once the relationship is mended or you have discovered a workaround, use the experience to build stronger relationships with others going forward.