As a mediator, I see a lot of broken work relationships. Whether it’s a manager and a team member, a client and a vendor, or a founder/CEO and former board member, by the time they get to mediation they don’t want to work with each other or even see the other person again.
Most of the time, the broken relationships used to be good relationships. But by the time people get to mediation, all they want to do is resolve the dispute they’re in now. They don’t realize how much they miss the good work relationship they used to have.
It breaks my heart when my clients won’t try to mend work relationships. They don’t seem to see how much they’re sabotaging themselves and their business.
But when my clients do mend work relationships, they get back that relationship that was so engaged, productive, and beneficial to everyone. That benefits them personally, and practically, in greater engagement, higher productivity, more-innovative ideas, and increased revenue and ROI.
4 steps to (try to) mend a broken work relationship
There are a lot of self-help articles out on the web and on social media about how to mend broken relationships. So I’m surprised when my clients have never tried to do anything before it’s too late.
I’ve worked with a lot of clients to mend broken relationships. Here’s what I’ve seen that works.
1. Start now. Now now.
Start to mend your relationship as soon as something goes wrong. A lot of my clients, whether they admit it or not, are afraid to do anything. I get that, it’s hard. But not doing something makes the problem worse.
If you want to mend a broken relationship, start now. Finish this article, so you get some ideas of what to do, and then do something right now. Or this afternoon at 3:15, or tomorrow morning at 10:30. Put it in your calendar, and reschedule at most once.
2. Prepare what to say and/or do.
Prepare ahead of time what you’re going to say and/or do, so you don’t experience that horrible feeling in the moment when your mind goes totally blank.
The best thing to say or do is something simple, whatever “simple” means for the country in which you work, standard business manners there, your personal style, your coworker’s personal style.
For many of my clients, a good way to say something to try to mend a broken relationship goes like this: describe the behavior you see, ask if the person is angry with you (or offended, or upset, or whatever word will work best), and ask if you’ve done something to cause that behavior.”
For example, a vendor might say to a client, “I can tell from your text that you’re not happy with the design. I get the impression that you think we’re not listening to you. What happened give you that impression?”
Or here’s what I said to a member of a team I was leading: “I get the feeling we’re not getting along as well as we used to. You seem to be uncomfortable around me. Is something wrong?”
With some of my clients, blunt is best: “Hey, what’s going on? You’re acting like I rolled in dog sh*t.” “What you said in that meeting? You were an a**hole.” “Dude, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” “Okay.” “Okay.”
3. Then listen. Yeah, just listen.
Once you’ve said to your coworker what you planned to say, or done what you planned to do, then listen to what your coworker says in reply.
In some cultures, “listening” means staying silent and looking at the other person. For others, “listening” means repeating or echoing what they’ve said, cooperatively creating a conversation. For still other cultures, if the other person says “I don’t want to talk about it,” that’s an invitation to talk even more.
Whatever constitutes listening in your culture, do it.
4. Accept their answer.
Accept your coworker’s answer to whatever you said. If they want to have a good working relationship again, like you used to, be glad. If they’re angry or offended at something you did, and what you did wasn’t professional or courteous, apologize. If they misinterpreted or misunderstood something you did, clarify what you did and/or meant.
If your coworker has something else going on in their life, like a bullying stakeholder or a new baby, or any other explanation that’s genuine, accept it. Maybe they can’t start up your work relationship right away, but they might be able to later.
If they say something that sounds like an excuse, or equivocation, such as “Oh, no, everything’s fine,” or, “I’m just so busy, don’t take it personally,” accept it. If what they’re saying is an indirect way or even direct way of saying, “No, I don’t want to resume our former relationship,” accept it. Focus on the enjoyable work relationships you still have.
Once you’ve tried, let it go
And then? Once you’ve done your best to mend the relationship?
Let it go. Sorry about the earworm, but practice nonattachment and accept your coworker’s answer.