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So You Messed Up? How To Repair With A Coworker

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You thought the meeting was fine. And then you hear from your manager that someone complained about your communication style. Now what? In situations that don’t rise to the level of an HR complaint but that leave a colleague with bad feelings, it is important to be able to address communication missteps directly and repair your workplace relationships.

“I was honestly shocked when my manager called me in to tell me there had been a complaint about how I had treated someone on a call,” said my client Ned, a director in the finance organization of a tech company. “I mean, I knew it was a little tense, but I kept my cool and calmly asked questions until we got to the right result. Afterwards, I found out that Steve, my peer, felt embarrassed and browbeaten and thought I was a real a**hole. That was not my intent at all. I’m meeting with him next week to explain why I acted the way I did and fix things.”

Trying to “fix things” by explaining himself was likely to be a non-starter. Instead, I coached Ned to engage with curiosity to seek understanding and repair the frayed relationship. Here are the steps he followed:

  • Don’t Explain. Sometimes when your impact doesn’t match your intent, your first instinct, like Ned’s, might be to explain yourself. You hope that, once the other person understands your intent, they will interpret your actions differently and will no longer be upset. This impulse is completely understandable, but often misguided. If you really want to repair a relationship and rebuild trust, instead of explaining (defending) yourself, first listen and try to understand and empathize, focusing on impact rather than intent. Only then can you repair trust and move forward constructively.
  • Listen with Curiosity. People need to be heard and acknowledged. When someone is hurt or angry, they generally need to tell their side of the story before they can move to repair. If you jump to explain your intent before hearing them out, it will likely be interpreted as a defense that seeks to invalidate their experience or make them “wrong.” Instead, start from curiosity. Begin with a soft startup. Let them know that you care about the relationship and acknowledge the situation. “Steve, I heard from our boss that you were upset by how I handled that call. I was dismayed to hear that I had that impact on you. It’s important to me that we have a good working relationship, so I’d like to understand, from your perspective, what happened, what words or actions bothered you, and how you would have preferred me to handle the situation.”
  • Explore. Allow the other person to tell their story and listen calmly without defending. Practice active listening and reflect back what you hear to confirm your understanding. Draw them out and play back what you heard. If they use judgmental language ask them to describe the actions that led to their interpretation. Try to keep things focused on specific behaviors. “You said my questions felt like an interrogation. I can imagine that didn’t feel good. Were there any particular questions that triggered your reaction?” As you explore, listen for the need or vision underneath the complaint. Steve’s vision was of a collaborative decision process where all voices are valued, and he had a need to be treated with respect, especially in front of his team. In his view, Ned’s approach fell short of both.
  • Validate and Take Responsibility. You don’t have to agree with the other person’s interpretation, but you do need to recognize that it is true for them. Validate their experience, take responsibility for the behavior and its (unintended) impact and, if warranted, apologize. You don’t have to agree with their interpretation, but you can recognize their point of view. “After listening to your perspective, I recognize that my words and my tone came across as browbeating. You felt put on the spot in front of our team and disrespected. I understand why you heard it that way, even though that was not my intent. I know that you place a high value on being respected, especially in front of the team. I do respect you and I’m sorry that my actions had the opposite impact. I want to do better in the future.”
  • (Maybe) Share Your Perspective. Once you have understood and acknowledged their perspective, you can decide if it is still important to you to explain yourself or share your perspective and your intent. If you choose to share your side of the story, be sure to do so in service of building mutual understanding and of learning, not defense or making the other person wrong. “Thanks for helping me understand your experience. I’d like to share my perspective as well. I’m hoping that if you hear my context and my thinking, it may help you understand my behavior and help identify what we can do differently next time.” Be mindful in sharing your perspective that you do not invalidate their experience and you “stay on your side of the net,” sticking to observable facts and your own context, understanding and motives.
  • Take Your Time to Move to Solution. If at any time during the conversation, things get heated or emotional, take a breath or pause the conversation. You may need to do a few rounds of listening and sharing before you both feel sufficiently resolved to move on. Pay attention to your own potential unconscious biases which may be at work and may require a deeper self-examination and awareness. Ultimately, you will want to discuss how you might approach the situation in the future so that your interactions can be more constructive. Agree to a set of principles for communication and how to handle conflict going forward. Ask: “How would you like me to approach a similar situation in the future?” Offer suggestions: “Next time, let’s meet 1:1 before the full group meeting.” And seek ongoing feedback: “If you feel that I am getting into ‘Inquisition Mode,’ please speak up and I will change my approach.”

Ned’s approach paid off and, after an awkward start, he and Steve had a productive conversation that led to greater understanding and an agreement to have a quarterly 1:1 check-in to talk about how their teams were working together. The key was listening before explaining. If you can resist the urge to defend yourself, but instead engage with curiosity, you can learn about your own impact as well as about your co-workers’ needs. The focus on impact rather than intent is particularly important if your actions were experienced as a micro-aggression, but the approach applies in any case. Awareness and empathy will allow you to repair relationships—at work or in your personal life—so that they will be stronger and more mutually trusting, as well as more effective. Even beyond the individual relationship, learning to adapt your behavior to have a more positive impact on coworkers in the future will help you contribute to a positive work culture and environment.