Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to Turn Around a Negative Relationship

Steps to work through your conflicts at home and at work

Dollar Photo Club by alphaspirit
Source: Dollar Photo Club by alphaspirit

I recently coached two people who needed to bring their conflict to the table to repair their relationship and rebuild trust. They were two male executives. They kept saying, “We are like an old married couple, aren’t we?”

In both personal and professional relationships, if you don't talk about negative feelings you are holding onto, the relationships will erode. You will then view all your interactions through a negative filter. Then you might say things that irreparably harm the relationship or avoid anything but necessary small talk.

Your only recourse is to talk things out and hopefully, come to agreements of how to be with each other in the future. The longer you avoid the conflict, the worse the effects. Although talking about your conflict can also feel painful, the end result should nourish both you and your relationship.

You can use the following steps to improve your own relationships or to act as a coach to help bring people together at work.

Determine the Desired Outcome

The first thing I asked my clients was why they wanted to improve their relationship. What was the purpose of trying to come together? What did they want to achieve together going forward? They said both of them would be with the company for another three years and the current relationship was not acceptable. They had to improve their relationship for efficiency reasons, to role model the right behavior as leaders, and for their sanity. They decided they wanted to define ways to communicate in meetings and in email that felt respectful, trusting, and supportive.

In your own relationship-building conversations, both parties must first sincerely agree on what it can look and feel like when they are together in the future and why this is important. Define, "What's in it for us." What are the payoffs that will inspire you both to move forward? How will communicating better serve you both? Determine what is possible when confidence, respect, and safety are maintained together.

Declaring a desired outcome will keep the conversation from spiralling into blame for harmful things said or done in the past. Clearly state and agree on a desired outcome before you begin making the plan.

Set Ground Rules

The next thing I did with my clients was to set ground rules for the rest of the conversation. These are the ground rules I gave them:

Ground Rule #1. No blaming. Blame and criticism pushes people away instead of inviting them into cooperation. Focusing on who is at fault makes it harder to find positive solutions to problems. It is appropriate to talk about behaviors that had a negative impact on you or others, but don’t share why you think the other person acted in a certain way. Your interpretation may not match their intention and your accusations will be more hurtful than helpful.

Ground Rule #2. Take responsibility. "It wasn't my fault." "I had to defend myself." "Don't blame me for..." are disempowering, time-wasting statements. Regardless of what happened in the past, take responsibility for improving the relationship going forward. Accept that your behavior wasn’t productive and ask your partner what he or she would prefer you do when these situations come up in the future. Taking responsibility is not about surrender, it is about empowering the relationship.

Ground Rule #3. Choose your emotions. When the conversation begins to feel risky, messy, or emotionally unstable, catch yourself getting defensive. Take a deep breath and choose to feel something else. What do you want to feel when with the person in the future? Do you want to feel confident, compassionate, care, or optimistic? Choose how you want to feel and let the feeling wash through you. Then if you notice you are feeling angry, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed, state what behavior or spoken words prompted you to feel this way so your partner can see the impact. Then choose how you want to feel going forward.

Ground Rule #4. Show respect and believe in your partner. Believe that your partner is doing his or her best to work this out for you both. These are difficult conversations. The more you believe in the best of intentions, the more likely you will find a way to move forward together.

Create a Contract

As outlined in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs, you may need to listen to each person tell their version of the story before you can determine what agreements need to be made. When each person speaks, listen for:

  • What the person feels is most important.
  • What is causing his or her frustration, fear, or disappointment?
  • What assumptions have limited his or her perception?
  • What he or she honestly wants to happen?

Repeat back what the other wants, fears, and believes to show you are listening without defending. Then you can begin to find ways for both parties to get their needs met more productively when together.

After each person tells their story once (no need to repeat these), agree on how you will relate in the future; write down the actions you both promise to take. Actions you can agree on include how you will:

  1. Make decisions together.
  2. Let the other person know when they did or said something hurtful.
  3. Praise or acknowledge each other.
  4. Handle disagreements.
  5. Share information.
  6. Build trust.

Check in Regularly

It is common for people to be on their best behavior for a while after they have a relationship-building conversation, but then “forget” as time passes. Agree to meet at least once a month for a while to share what is going well and make any additional requests if needed.

A good relationship is one you are always working on, at home and at work. Being aware and able to talk about your communications and behavior towards one another is difficult yet in the end, should be very satisfying.