WORKPLACES are communities built around the relationships we have with our peers. When these relationships are strong, they can be a source of energy, learning and support. But when they fracture, even just temporarily, they become sources of frustration that can harm both people and organisations. Left unchecked, even a small conflict can spiral out of control, leading to anger and resentment. That’s why managers and employees need to be able to manage and bounce back from these conflicts.
A study was undertaken to understand how relationships can be strengthened to avoid potential breakdowns, and the best ways to repair them when breakdowns occur. A review was done of about 300 studies published in management and psychology in the past 15 years, focusing on workplace relationships, relationship transgressions and relationship repair. The following three practices that can help you to make your work relationships more resilient in the face of conflict and everyday tensions were identified:
Reset the emotional tone
Conflicts have an emotional impact. Even small issues create tension between us and others, which can cause us to pull away in order to minimise feelings of hurt, frustration and anger. Rather than pulling away, research suggested that we’re better off resetting the emotional tone when we notice some tension. One way to do this is by bringing up positive memories with your colleague, which can strengthen your bond and act as an emotional safety net for your relationships.
That doesn’t mean ignoring the negative emotions you may be feeling. Rather, thinking of the positive history you share can help you counterbalance those negative feelings so that you can express them effectively. Your goal is to create a supportive environment in which you can express your hurt and anger without further damaging your relationship. To re-establish a positive emotional tone, raise the issue.
You want to immediately acknowledge the tension and allow each other to express negative feelings, but it is important you also emphasise your positive feelings about the future of the relationship. For example, say: “I know that we are not seeing eye-to-eye on this issue right now, and it is upsetting for both of us, but I’m really optimistic we can work this out.” Ensure that the rules of your relationship mean you can express your emotions and ask about your colleague’s, knowing that they will listen without becoming defensive.
Suggest a time out. Set a meeting a couple of days out to let your emotions cool off. If time is of the essence, even something like a coffee break can help ease the tension. If there is not the opportunity for time out, try a brief topic change, which has been proven to reduce physiological arousal during conflict and promote positive emotions. For example, take a moment to check in with each other about a project that is going well. Commit to a shared relationship goal. Agree that your relationship is important and that you both want to restore mutual positive feelings. Remind the other person of the positive elements of your relationship, and your desire to have more positive interactions in the future. This may help to keep the current conflict from contaminating the entire relationship.
Craft your shared narrative
Whether and how relationships recover from conflicts also depends on the stories that we tell. Studies have suggested starting with a personal explanation of what you see as the cause of conflict, soliciting the other person’s explanation, and then using these as the basis for working together to reach a common understanding of what happened and why.
If each person has a different or negative interpretation and they go unaddressed, there will not be a shared foundation from which to rebuild the relationship. For example, if the other person doesn’t recognise the pain they caused, they are unlikely to take the crucial first step of offering an apology. Part of the goal of creating a shared narrative is that it can increase people’s willingness to forgive and reconcile if they assume the best, rather than the worst, of the other person’s intentions.
A shared narrative can help both sides recognise that the source of the conflict is not the fault of either person, but rather a flaw of how they’re relating. For example, rather than blaming yourself (I was overcommitted) or your colleague (they didn’t prioritise the project) for not meeting a deadline, you can reflect on how both of your actions contributed to the failure (we didn’t check in often enough to make sure we were on track). This latter explanation suggests that your relationship needs to improve, but also hints at ways to create a more positive relational process in the future. As you craft your shared narrative, think about what went wrong? Ask for the other person’s story about the relationship breakdown, then offer your own perspective.
Be open and listen without getting defensive. If you feel unable to listen and reflect on the other person’s story without reacting and interrupting, you might try asking for the person’s perspective in an email. It’s about us, not me or you. Take a step back from focusing on the other person and refocus on the relationship itself. Ask whether there is something about how you interact with each other that contributed to the breakdown.
Rather than blaming each other, this focus on your relationship will help you to notice if the root cause of the breakdown is something you can change. Reflect on your history. Research has consistently linked reminiscing to long-term relationship satisfaction. Applied to the workplace context, this suggests that the more often you reflect on your positive history with your colleagues, the easier it is to craft a narrative in which this negative event is the exception rather than the rule.
Build relational agility
When faced with a conflict, it is essential that in addition to resetting the emotional tone and creating a shared narrative, we are willing to try new ways of interacting with each other – what is called relational agility. We often respond to relationship breakdowns by “digging in”, sticking with our interpretation of events and our preferred solution.
If we look for a different and creative approach to solve the problem, we are more likely to successfully repair the relationship and may even strengthen it. Fractures themselves can be a signal that something about the relationship was no longer working, and trying a different approach to interacting may allow individuals to break old patterns and relate to each other in more productive ways. Of course, developing relational agility is challenging, especially when things are tense. Consider the following strategies:
- Plan to improvise
Good improvisation takes planning. Rather than assuming that your relationships will be smooth, think ahead to potential trouble spots. For example, if you need to renegotiate resource allocations or workloads, don’t assume an easy agreement. Instead, think about the reasons your colleague might object, and then plan for them. Ask yourself whether the other person might feel undervalued or feel protective of their staff. By thinking through the potential objections, you can be ready to respond in the moment with creative problem-solving.
- When the unexpected happens, pay attention
There will be surprises that emerge in the course of your interpersonal interactions that you cannot control or plan for. If you are surprised by a colleague’s reaction, rather than reacting defensively, ask yourself why? Can you pinpoint what exactly is triggering for you?
Remember that their reaction gives you important information about their interests, and strong reactions tell us that the other person feels under attack. Perhaps you asked a colleague to move to a different office, then they burst into tears. Getting curious about why that happened would lead you to asking why moving offices was so distressing. Once you get to the root of the problem, you can then start problem-solving together.
These three moves – creating a positive tone, shared narratives, and relational agility – will help to repair most damaged relationships.
This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review.