Recently a client (we’ll call her Sue) shared her frustration following a conversation she had with a colleague. The discussion seemed pretty benign to me, so I asked Sue why she had such strong feelings about it. She then gave me the back story of an earlier conversation they had many months ago that went off the rails. In their heated exchange, Sue’s colleague said some things that blindsided Sue and left her feeling disrespected. They went back and forth that day, arguing and accusing each other, and finally agreed to disagree. Nothing was resolved and they moved on as if nothing had happened.

Except, something did happen. They treated each other poorly and their relationship was damaged as a result. They continued working together, but there was now an elephant in the room – the hurtful words and unresolved conflict stemming from that past conversation. So, anytime Sue’s colleague seemed to disagree with her or she had a less-than-perfect interaction with him, Sue reacted strongly.

I remember at least a couple of times in my career when a work relationship was broken because of an argument, a perceived betrayal, or other slight. I’m not a high trust person to begin with, so I became distrustful and wary of those colleagues, building up assumptions and beliefs about them as the Ladder of Inference illustrates. The Ladder of Inference is a model that illustrates how we can jump to conclusions about others based on the meaning we assign, assumptions we make, and beliefs we adopt when we observe others and their behaviors. One (or a few) bad interaction(s) had me going right up the Ladder, seeing those colleagues as people who should not be trusted and from whom I needed to keep at a distance. I would engage with them only when necessary.

Of course, none of these reactionary behaviors and attitudes helps when you are trying to get work done and maintain a healthy and vibrant work environment. So, how do you go about repairing a work relationship that has been damaged? Here are a few ideas:

  • Question your assumptions – When you go up the Ladder of Inference, be intentional about identifying the assumptions you have made and the meaning you have made up about the other person’s actions. What story have you invented and what actions might you have missed or not acknowledged that run counter to your viewpoint?
  • Take the long view – Think about what it will be like to still feel this way about this person a year or two years from now. Wouldn’t it be better to have more positive and collaborative interactions with your colleague? Think about what it would look like to have an ideal relationship with this person. How would you be interacting then?
  • Reach out – You may deal with this person every day because of your overlapping responsibilities, but yet you both may feel the underlying tension or dislike that permeates your interactions. Take the first step and invite your colleague to coffee or lunch (outside of the office preferably) in order to find a better way forward.
  • Be honest – Often we judge people based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what was actually intended. In your conversation, share how your colleague’s actions or behavior impacted you while acknowledging that that may not have been their intention. Also, be honest about the part you have played in the broken relationship.
  • Put effective communication skills into practice – Be sure to use your best communication skills during the conversation – listen actively, ask questions, avoid defensiveness and blame, use “yes and” not “yes but,” don’t take it personally, be aware of your emotions, and breathe.
  • Commit to a path forward – After sharing your perspectives and clearing the air, come up with ways to continue working on your relationship and heading off any future dust-ups before they take root and re-damage your relationship.

It’s unlikely that one conversation will fix your broken work relationship, but one conversation can definitely open the door to further conversations and a chance to work together differently. With patience and commitment, you can reduce or eliminate the negative effects of a broken work relationship.

What has happened to break a work relationship that you have? How have you repaired problematic work relationships in the past?
Please leave a comment.

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