How to Repair Professional Relationships

Navigating conflict in the workplace

After a major disagreement, a devastating loss, or years of subtle friction, you might have difficulty getting along with one or more of your colleagues. How do you repair these professional relationships and restore them back to good health?

Work With Your Own Feelings

The first step to resolving any conflict is to recognize and work with your own feelings. If your feelings were hurt by a previous interaction, you may feel hostile or resentful of the other party; in some cases, you may want to burn the professional relationship to the ground or even emotionally hurt the other person to “get even.” This is a defense mechanism that many of us experience, but it’s problematic for resolving conflict.

Before you approach the other person, it’s important to better understand these feelings and get them under control. It’s going to give you greater clarity, it’s going to help you focus on the real problem, and it’s going to give you greater mental and emotional control that will help you resolve this issue more reliably.

The first step is to be present with your emotions. Instead of fighting them, denying them, or ruminating in them, simply allow yourself to feel them and ask yourself why you feel them. What is it about your previous interactions that made you feel this way? Is there any lasting impact from these previous actions?

Once you spend some time processing these emotions, the intensity should lessen. You should have a better grasp on the roots of these emotions, and you should be at a place where you can communicate about them in a calm and controlled manner.

Approach the Other Person

At this point, you’ll be ready to approach the other person. The dynamics of this interaction are going to change significantly based on your exact relationship to this other person. Talking to a boss is different from talking to a subordinate. Talking to a coworker you see every day is different than talking to a network connection you only see a few times a year.

Keep this in mind as you review the following steps.

  •       Choose an appropriate location and time. Choose an appropriate location and time to confront the other party. Generally, the best location is a neutral ground where both of you feel comfortable. The best time is when both of you are available, not rushed, and able to focus on the conversation.
  •       Remain calm and polite. From your first meeting request through the end of your conversation, it’s important to remain calm and polite at all times. Even if you feel frustrated or if the conversation doesn’t go the way you’d like, you need to prevent your negative emotions from taking control of the conversation. Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, and positive self-talk can help you do this.
  •       Speak to the issue directly and honestly. When it’s time to open the conversation, speak to the central issue directly and honestly. Don’t be accusatory, but do express how you feel about whatever happened. Statements like “when you shot down my idea at the meeting, I felt a bit betrayed” are much better than “only a jerk like you would shoot down an idea so callously.” If you’re honest and vulnerable, the other person is much more likely to cooperate with you and seek a mutually agreeable resolution.
  •       Apologize (if appropriate). If you played at least some role in the damaged relationship, express some humility and apologize. Apologizing genuinely is an act of contrition that demonstrates how serious you are about resolving the problem and moving forward. If you committed a serious offense, consider making up for the offense with a gesture; taking the colleague out to lunch or giving them a small gift can go a long way. Of course, if you were the exclusively wronged party, you may not have anything to apologize for. In this case, requesting an apology may be appropriate – but only do this if the other party doesn’t volunteer an apology of their own.
  •       Offer a path toward resolution. What is it going to take for both of you to agreeably move forward? Be proactive and offer a path toward resolution. There’s no guarantee both of you will agree on the necessary steps to repair the professional relationship, but if you’re both willing to put in a bit of work, you’ll probably find a decent solution.

Reassess and Follow Up

What happens next will depend on how the conversation goes. If it goes well, the issue may be successfully resolved and you can continue working together as normal. If it goes horribly, it may be better to let things go and try to avoid each other in the future whenever possible. 

Most likely, you’ll be somewhere in the middle. In this case, thank your colleague for their time and follow up with them in the future to start building your relationship back up.

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