3 Practices to Repair Relational Ruptures

Todd Hall
Personal Development
June 18, 2014

Recently, I was reminded that relationships are dynamic—always changing, unfolding, developing.

Along with the changes, ruptures and conflict in relationships are inevitable. They happen all the time. It's part of what it means to be human. It also means you can't bank on the trust that was built in the past. Trust is built and re-built one interaction at a time. I re-learned that the hard way recently. I was responsible to be there to support someone I mentor. I unintentionally blew Frank* off. Sure, it was unintentional, but it still had a negative impact. After it happened, Frank called me on it. I was a little bit surprised—another sign of how out of tune I was with the negative impact I had caused. My first internal reaction was defensiveness. I wished like crazy that I could just rely on the past status of the relationship being positive and intact. But it doesn't work that way. I wasn't there in the way I should have been, and it caused pain. There was a rupture and it hurt Frank’s performance. He wasn’t able to focus on his job because he was preoccupied with the rupture.

Relational ruptures are inevitable. 

They are almost always caused by both people in the relationship. 

Ruptures in the work context decrease our overall well-being, creativity, and performance.

While we don’t seek them out, ruptures provide an opportunity to make a relationship stronger than it was before. And this leads to better teamwork and performance.

In all my relationships—but especially with the people I lead—my job is to go first in doing everything I can to repair the rupture. Your job as a leader is to go first as well. It's not your employees' responsibility to repair a rupture, even if they caused it. It's yours. Even if it’s a colleague, go first and help create the trust you want in your team. It’s hard to go first. It’s one of the most difficult things that come with the territory of leadership and relationships in general. 

Here are 3 practices that will help you repair relational ruptures.

1. Create Emotional Space

Sometimes when a rupture happens you don't feel like you have the emotional space to go first. Instead, you want to scream. Maybe you feel you were wronged. Maybe you felt misunderstood. Maybe your employee or colleague didn't do his or her job. And quite possibly, the pressures coming from the top feel unbearable. All true. But it's still your job to go first and initiate repair. 

What this means is this: If you don't have the internal and emotional space to go first, you have to create that space externally. How do you do that? You need people in your life who go first with you; people who seek to repair with you. These are the people who check in with you not just about how you're performing, but how you're doing inside. These are the people who don’t settle for the “things are fine” answer. Who are the people that play this role in your life? Seek them out, and invest in those relationships. 

2. Focus on the Impact

There is a difference between intent and impact. Our job is to be aware of how we impact others even if that impact wasn't what we intended. Going first means you set aside your intent and everything the other person did to contribute to the rupture. In order to do this, you have to be aware of the fact that your perspective is just that: one perspective on the situation. You never have the complete picture of what happened, not just in terms of the events, but also in terms of the social and emotional processing that goes on behind the scenes in all relational interactions. 

Your emotional responses are processed outside of conscious awareness in a matter of milliseconds and they are filtered by your current mood, and relevant memories of past relational experiences. In other words, the past is always the present to some extent and it always influences our perspective. Understanding this should bring a certain level of humility. I never have the complete or “right” perspective. I am always influenced by past experiences in ways that are outside my conscious awareness. So, set aside your perspective and listen to the other person’s. If you do that, he or she is much more likely to be willing to listen to yours.

3. Explicitly Own Your Part

It’s not enough to just be aware of the impact. In order to repair a relational rupture you need to express your awareness of the rupture and own your part in creating the rupture.  After you own your part, it is helpful to do something differently to demonstrate that you understand the impact of the rupture, the other’s perspective, and that you care about being responsive. We trust people who are responsive. It’s one of the fundamental aspects of secure attachment—a healthy bond between a caregiver and child. Being responsive is also essential to trust and positive relationships in the workplace, and to effective leadership.

So how did things end with Frank?

When Frank first confronted me, I didn’t have the internal space to go first. I felt misunderstood and I wanted to scream. I was able to keep my bearings enough to realize that I was not in a good place to respond in detail, other than to try to listen. So, I listened and I told Frank I would think about what happened and invited him to talk about it later. I created external space by not responding immediately, taking time to reflect on my feelings and reactions, and talking with a close friend about it. Why was I so defensive? Why did I feel so misunderstood? How did I miss this? What was going on in my life and journey that contributed to this? 

With some time, I became aware there were some difficult things going on in my life that were affecting me in ways I hadn’t realized. Taking a stance of understanding toward my own emotional responses helped me to have the space to better understand Frank’s perspective. This helped me to focus on the impact that I had on Frank. When I was able to tune into that, I was able to feel empathy for the pain I had caused. I met with Frank soon after the initial confrontation, and I apologized for the pain I had caused. This led to a productive conversation, and repair, which helped Frank to re-focus on the major tasks at hand. 

Question for Reflection 

I'd love to hear one of your stories about rupture and repair—a time when you reached out to repair, or when someone did that for you. What happened and how did it impact you?

I hope this helps you to repair relational ruptures. For more insights on living and leading with connection, sign up here for my newsletter. As a welcome gift for joining, I invite you to take my free MCORE quiz, discover your #1 motivation, and elevate performance and meaning in your work and relationships. 

* The name and some circumstances have been changed to protect confidentiality.