How to Repair a Damaged Relationship
By Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.
Conflict is a normal part of two people with different needs, interests, and motivations coming together. It’s how conflict is handled that determines the quality and ultimate success of a relationship. Researchers at the University of Washington (the same researchers who can predict the future success of a relationship with 93 percent accuracy) have discovered that successful relationships address conflict using a single technique-one so effective at addressing conflict that it’s called a repair.
A repair is a gesture that shows respect and concern for the other despite disagreement. Repairs take on many forms, but all aim at resolving a conflict together—as opposed to winning a conflict on your own. A repair can be anything from suggesting a compromise (“Let’s split the funds between Sales and Marketing.”) to owning your half of the situation (“I realize that letting Marketing have these funds is a risk we may all regret taking.”) to voicing respect for another party (“I think your project is a great idea.”) to using humor to break tension (“Maybe we can all transfer to the Service department so we won’t have any funds to fight over.”).
In the heat of an argument, a repair sends an instant signal that you think the other person is important, that you respect him or her, and that you’re willing to put the good of the relationship ahead of your self-interest. Repairs don’t just improve the outcomes of the conflicts that you weave them into. They inject health into relationships that have been damaged by discord.
It’s safe to assume we’ve all had conversations that could use a repair. A simple discussion breaks into a disagreement or gets stuck going around in circles. In these broken conversations, past mistakes are brought to the surface, regretful comments are made, and blame is prevalent. No matter who said what, or who “started it,” it’s time to refocus and fix things. It’s time for you to step back, quickly assess the situation, and begin repairing the conversation. Repairs happen in a four-step process:
STEP 1: Take your emotions out of the driver’s seat. A repair involves moving beyond the expression of anger, resentment, and hostility toward the other party. Your first hope for a successful repair lies in your self-awareness. You can’t improve on an argument if you’re being thrown over a barrel by your emotions. Disagreements bring your emotions rushing to the surface, and you can’t perform a repair unless you understand them. Don’t waste time feeling guilty about your feelings. Just focus your energy on understanding them for what they are. If you find your emotions are so strong that it’s hard to think clearly, it is probably best to save the discussion for later. If you’re so emotional that you’re getting tunnel vision, feeling sick, or are just in a haze, the most successful repair is explaining to the other party that you feel overwhelmed and need some time to cool off and get your thoughts together before continuing. Your argument is not going anywhere, so don’t pressure yourself into a discussion when you can’t think clearly.
STEP 2: Take a look at the field from the other side. If you are composed enough to have some perspective on the situation, you can initiate the next step in a repair. Use your social awareness skills to focus your thoughts on what things must be like in the other person’s shoes. Don’t spend time thinking about what they’re like. Just imagine what they’re thinking and feeling. What’s important to them and how is that driving their behavior? You can’t launch a successful repair until you fully understand why the other person is doing whatever it is they are doing. You have to show the other person you care about how things look from their point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. This can’t happen until you actually see things the way they do. To do so, you need to let go of blame and focus on the repair. Do you want to be right, or do you want a resolution? Move beyond thinking of ways that you can convince the other party of your opinions, and ask yourself what you can do to honor their feelings. Respecting another’s opinions, right or wrong, is the key to compromise.
STEP 3: Make a repair and evaluate its effectiveness. At this stage of the game, all you need to do is craft your repair and give it a whirl. Keep in mind that an effective repair will:
- Show respect for the other party
- Show concern for the other party’s perspective
- Find common ground
- Be neutral in tone
The look of a successful repair can be as varied as the problems it solves. A repair that works in one situation with one person may just make things worse in another. Saying, “What exactly do you mean by that?” can sound like you are minimizing the issues in the middle of one argument, but be received as a sign of wanting to make things better in another. To perform a successful repair, arm yourself with the knowledge that many of your attempts will crash and burn. Even an empathetic comment such as, “I understand what you are saying,” can be perceived as belittling if the other party is defensive or not accustomed to you saying this. Be ready to try multiple repairs in a single argument and expect that they will not all go off without a hitch. The more you repair, the more the other party will be receptive and do the same. People with the best skills at repairing disagreements are the same ones who try the most often.
STEP 4: Discuss repairs together. It also will help your relationship to discuss repairs together. If you can talk about your arguments, you are both more likely to initiate repairs the next time you have one. When repair attempts are always one-sided, a relationship usually fails. Both parties need to work to resolve challenges together. By talking about repairs, you develop the understanding that they are important. Even if the other party has trouble making repairs the next time the two of you argue, he or she likely will recognize your effort and realize it is an attempt to make things better. A successful repair must be initiated by one partner at a time, but when the other responds in kind, the relationship builds an unshakable strength that can only come from a high level of emotional intelligence.
Dr. Travis Bradberry is the co-author of “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” and the cofounder of TalentSmart, a think tank and consultancy that serves more than 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies and is a leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries.