How to Repair a Relationship in 5 Steps

Female student talking with her professorThere are a couple things we know about power and relationships: Power is the ability to have influence on others. Power is relational and relationships are messy. We inevitably hurt each other.

Good intentions are essential, but not enough to ensure we are using our power well. Our impact is often different from our intentions. We may be surprised by cultural differences, differing world perspectives, and differing values. We make mistakes, and we may (often accidentally) misuse power. Most misuses of power are made by people who have lots of power due to their roles and privilege, good intentions, lack of awareness about their impact on others, and limited understanding about the dynamics of power.

There are three main reasons why many conflicts escalate and don’t turn out well. We may avoid conflict because it is often associated with loss, pain, and even trauma. We might respond defensively to misunderstandings, hurt, and feedback. And because we most often don’t intend to cause harm, it can be hard to acknowledge or even see when we are responsible for hurt or conflict.

Here’s the good news: Most relationship difficulties can be resolved quickly, and the relationship can be repaired and even grow stronger. When hurt or misunderstood, most people need one or more of the following things. Here is an example: A teacher, trying to promote growth and learning, gave a student some challenging feedback about their presentation. Later, the student came to the teacher confused and hurt by what they had said.

We may avoid conflict because it is often associated with loss, pain, and even trauma. We might respond defensively to misunderstandings, hurt, and feedback.

5 Steps to Repair Any Relationship

1. Acknowledgement

It’s important for someone to have their pain, upset, or confusion acknowledged. “You seemed really upset about my feedback. I realize my words may have been painful. Can you tell me more about what that was like for you?”

2. Intention

Someone may want to know what your intention was without having you reassign blame or validate your behavior. “I was intending to offer you some useful information about how you were using your voice.” (Please note that this is a short description. If you use only this step, or go too deeply into intention, people may experience this as an excuse.)

3. Apology

They want an apology. Here is a good formula: This is what I regret (specific behavior), and this is what I learned and what I’m doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again. For example, “I regret several things—that I didn’t ask you if this was a good time, didn’t give you a concrete example, and didn’t clarify that it was about how you used your voice, not who you are. Next time, I will be more clear in what I say and check in first about whether this would be a good time.”

An effective apology is deeply important for healing and repair. For an apology to land well, it needs to be behaviorally specific and involve taking personal responsibility. These are some examples of apologies that don’t get the job done:

  • “I’m sorry.” No behavior is named in this apology.
  • “I’m sorry you were hurt.” This apology does not take responsibility.
  • “I was really busy and didn’t mean to hurt you.” This apology does not take responsibility and neglects any action to repair.
  • “What’s your part in this?” This apology shifts blame to the other person.
  • “I was maybe a little unskillful.” This apology does not take the issue seriously.
  • “I was under a lot of stress and feeling badly at the time.” This apology is defensive.

4. Learning

As you are repairing a relationship with someone, they may want to know what you have learned. People can be very generous when they understand their hurt contributed to learning and growth. “I’ve learned more about what kind of feedback works for you. I will, in the future, ask if this is a good time, and leave time at the end to hear your responses and clear up misunderstandings.”

5. Repair

When a relationship has been ruptured, an invitation to repair is important and welcome. Although an individual may bring their hopes forward to you, it also can convey a lot of caring when you initiate by asking what would work best for them. “Is there anything I can do that would help repair this relationship?”

Try this: Think of someone, a friend or someone at work, with whom there has been an unresolved relational difficulty. (Start with a fairly low-stakes relationship and situation.) Try these steps, and see if you can resolve and repair. After the repair is made, ask for feedback from your other person about what you said or offered that was helpful in moving toward understanding and resolution.

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  • Dr. Cedar Barstow

    Dr. Cedar Barstow

    July 25th, 2019 at 8:36 AM

    I hope this article is useful for the very important process of relationship repair.

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