You’ve had an interaction with a coworker during which you felt hurt, angry, misunderstood, and wronged—clearly it was an upsetting and difficult situation.
As you regroup, you review what happened, what you heard and experienced. Replaying the conversation is painful and you begin to plan what you’d like to say as a follow-up. Of course the other person is taking stock and regrouping too, and he or she likely has a very different take on what happened.
Revisiting and repairing a difficult interaction in the workplace is a complex process. Here’s how to get started:
When you invite your coworker to revisit the conflict, make your intentions clear up front, otherwise you risk round two of the same interaction—something you both dread.
Of course you must be clear with yourself that you have good intentions. So, communicate that to the other person:
I’ve been thinking about what happened yesterday and how we got all snarled-up, which is really unfortunate. I have some insight into my part of the conflict that I’d like to share with you, and I’d like to understand what’s important to you, too.
Now, here’s the really hard part. Change the story you developed—in which you got hurt—to include what you learned from the other person.
The reason this is so hard is that the emotional impact is embedded in your experience. What happened to you is what happened to you. However, the beliefs you connect to that experience need to include your new understanding, what you just learned from your coworker.
Getting to that understanding with someone can be tricky. When difficult interactions are revisited, one person may say, "I may have said that, but it’s not truly what I meant," and the other may respond, "Yes, but if you said it, then you must have meant it." This, of course, leads nowhere.
When talking, be sure to give each other enough time to fully express thoughts and feelings; talk about what’s really important to you; explain how you were affected by what the other person said and did; and apologize for anything you said or did that hurt the other person.
When revisiting a difficult conversation, take the explanations the other person offers at face value: The revisited accounts you both offer may truly be more carefully thought out, with words more precisely chosen.
It’s this more precise information you should use to update your understanding. Our emotions all too easily can get stuck in the past, making this kind of belief change very difficult—but try.
And if the other person gives mixed or double messages, doesn’t tell the truth, or the situation keeps happening, then you’re right to be wary. That leads to a crazy-making situation, which is not what I’m addressing here. What I’m describing here includes a good-faith element, where there is enough trust between two people and a good enough working relationship to warrant this effort in preserving and developing the relationship through adverse interactions.
It takes a lot of effort, and if both people can genuinely express caring and concern for the other person’s distress it makes repair a lot easier.
Too often, coworkers will avoid revisiting and repairing the relationship and focus only on the task where the conflict arose. In the short run this gives the appearance of getting back to "normal," but risk of another eruption will remain high.
Negative, painful comments have a way of being sticky even when we know better. So it’s better to have the courageous conversation and repair the broken communication with the intention of strengthening the relationship.
—Robert V. Keteyian is a communication consultant and the author of Do You Know What I Mean?—Discovering Your Personal Communication Style. He is dedicated to helping people build strong relationships in the workplace.