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Passion, People and Principles

Repairing Fences

post # 220 — October 20, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations, Managing post

In the normal course of life, we do a thousand little things that annoy other people, and they do a million that annoy us. Occasionally, all this irritation boils over into an intemperate ‘spat.” We complain, we say something harsh, or we say something valid in a harsh way.

It can happen with a client, a boss, a subordinate, a peer, a romantic partner, a friend or a family member.

Of course, you acknowledge that you were guilty, too, but you feel that your sins are less because:

(a) you were RIGHT

(b) you had a good reason for what YOU did

(c) the other person was unfair

(d) they started it

(e) you’re going to be the one who has the final word, come hell or high water

Now what?

The temptation is always to dwell on the hurtful things the other person said, or the ways they let you down. The temptation is to burn your bridges, or engage in extensive discussions to prove you were in the right.

Bad idea. The thing that set the other person off may not have been the thing they’re complaining about. Often, it’s not. Frequently, resentments accumulate and the final topic that causes the explosion is, more often than not, only the excuse for the bad temper, not the real cause.

One of the hardest things in the world is to stand aside from all this, and ask “Do I want to end the relationship right now, or try to restore it over time?” It’s hard to ask ‘What’s in my best interests here?’ It’s hard, but necessary, to put aside — at least temporarily- the issue of who was right and who was wrong.

One of the most elusive — and valuable — talents, is the ability to mend broken fences. Some people are terrific at it, others don’t have the personality for it. But my rule is that I don’t believe in half-relationships. We’re either in this fully together or I don’t want to play.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t realize that sometimes the relationship is on probation. When trying to mend fences, note that you will need to discuss whatever set you both off, but not right when it happened. The more you try to “explain” your side, the more self-justifying (and annoying) you will become. Remember the goal is to heal, not to have the argument yet one more time.

Just move on together. Weeks, months or years from now you can discuss who did what to whom, but until time has performed its magic, you’ll get nowhere trying to heal hurt feelings with logic. Just acknowledge that the underlying mutual respect is there — the commitment to make it work — and get back to work.

Relationships are more important than blame.

What are YOUR tips for getting through these terrible times?


Dennis Howlett said:

This is so easy to answer and so hard to do:

  • Remember no-one’s to blame but everyone is responsible – the culture of blame is the first and highest barrier to overcoming fear in the workplace
  • Whenever you point the finger there are always three pointing back – try it sometime :)
  • All effective apologies are one way signals – I screwed up – end of message.

Everything else flows from these three things – in my experience. Even the toughest boss, colleague, fellow blogger, whatever will forgive you if you stick by these simple suggestions. The only ones who won’t fall into Bob Suttons’ notion of Assholes. These you can safely strike off your list of folk with whom you’re prepared to communicate.

posted on October 20, 2006

Ted Harro said:

I have a colleague who recently handled a situation like this magnificently. My friend, Jim, had noticed some behavior that made him think that his colleague, Ken, was miffed with him. They have a little history, so it wasn’t unreasonable. Jim’s trying to do better with these bust-ups and potential bust-ups, so he planned a strategy.

First, he approached Ken and told him he wanted to talk about it. He pointed out the situation in question and the behavior that made him think Ken may be a little upset. Then Jim said to Ken that he could imagine how, if he were in Ken’s shoes, the situation may make him react (frustrated and ticked off with Jim).

He expected Ken to agree, jump right on board, and tell him all the reasons he was miffed. Then Jim planned to listen, accept the reaction, share his point of view, and try to reach some middle ground.

Only it didn’t go according to script. Actually, Ken said that he wasn’t upset with Jim, but was rather embarrassed at his own team’s lack of performance in the situation.

And then Jim did something VERY important. He resisted the temptation to take that vulnerability and rub it in, to score political points. Instead, he offered to help Ken, leading to a better relationship than they had had before. They went from potential combatants to allies in a short time.

In hindsight, Jim said he was glad he handled the situation this way instead of either a)pointing the finger or b) apologizing for the problem before he knew Ken’s point of view. It allowed him to bring up a delicate topic, talk about what he was expert in (the facts and his own reactions to them), and stay away from things that could have sent the conversation south (blame, over-apology, judgment).

posted on October 20, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

[Rereading this I'm not sure if this exactly answers your question, but it's my thoughts on friendship, in any case.]

I think friendship is much like Kant’s “treat people as ends not means”. In other words, a friendship is something where you value the person above the value of the relationship.

Test for friendship: would you do something, at cost to yourself, which you know you’ll never get any real value back for, just because you know it would help your friend and they need the help?

Every friendship is different in the details of its dynamics, because every person is different. I have friends I tease, and others I never tease. I have friends I do things with – I have others I confide my worries to. Sometimes there’s overlap, but often enough there isn’t.

This is the similiar to dealing with employees – there are people I can chew out who won’t take it personally, there are others who I have to couch criticism to in the kindest way possible. And I will say, in my experience, that the second set were often the people who would stay till 10pm if asked by me – they weren’t the slackers. People who react the most positively to kindness are often (not always, but often) the ones who will go the farthest for those who are kind to them.

What seperates a friend from a friendly relationship is that for friend I’m willing to go out of my way even if I don’t expect any payback.

“If they were in trouble (in hospital/in jail) would I pull out of an important engagement, jump on a plane and go help them if I was the only one who could?”

If the answer is yes – you’re friends.

Why? Because you aren’t treating them as instrumental – as someone you treat well because they can just get you something and who you ditch when the cost benefit analysis turns negative.

In terms of fixing relationships… remember, if it’s a “relationship” then it’s subject to cost benefit analysis. If it’s a friendship, it isn’t (or at least, much less so.)

“I’m sorry. I really like you. What do I have to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

That sort of taking responsibility (I, instead of we) will often very quickly lead to a discussion of the ways in which the other person was also responsible, by the way. If it doesn’t, then you may indeed have a friendship/relationship that can’t be fixed.

(Largely Unrelated Story: Years ago when I lived in Ottawa in my twenties I was very poor. One winter I got a job as a bike courier. Now Ottawa is cold, -30 celcius wasn’t uncommon. And I was broke. A few days after I started and a couple weeks before my first paycheck a friend came by my place and was angry with himself.

“I don’t know what I was thinking! I bought this pair of gloves and they’re too small for me. Try them on, I hope they fit you!”

I did, they did. I wore them all that winter – they were a very fine pair of leather gloves with a knit interiror (whcih are very hard to find, for some reason.)

Now you, the reader, are probably thinking they were obviously a gift. But it didn’t occur to me until a few years later, when I realized he was 6’2″ and I was 5’8″ and there was no way he bought those by accident at that particular time.

Because I don’t know if I would have accepted them if they were presented as a gift – I was very proud, and I considered myself “tough” (as if frostbite cares about “tough”).

That particular friend was very good at the art of giving gifts. He used to complain about how he hated to eat alone a lot too, and I’m sure you can figure out how that ended and how it tended to cluster around the times when I was boiling cabbage…)

posted on October 21, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Helpful elaboration, Ian. I will follow up with the Keith Johnstone reefernce. Of course, I expect all my consulting clients to sit at my feet, but somehow it doessn’t seem to suit them.

posted on October 21, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

Treat any “relationship” you want to keep going the same as you would any friendship you want to keep going.

Forget the extraneous stuff – how would you deal with it if it were a friendship?

And I’ll add one more thing – every relationship/friendship is not the same. The sort of behaviour that will break up one friendship might be right on for another (for example some friendships are based on incessant teasing. That same teasing might destroy a different relationship.) Sometimes the habits you have, that work in most of your friendships won’t work in another one – then the question is, is the friendship valuable enought to tret that friend differently from most of your other friends – because you genuinely like and value the friend and want them around as your friend.

posted on October 21, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Ian, I could use a little more help. You say both that (a) relationships are like friendships, but (b) all friendships are different. These two statements are hard to reconcile. Do you have any general principles that you use?

posted on October 21, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

Argh. Sorry for the spam. I should have thought this through more systemically before posting.

Here’s are the principles:

1) A friendship is a relationship in which you care more about the person than the benefit of the relationship. It is a relationship where you treat the person as an end, not a means.

2) Because people are different, other than the overaching principle that you treat the person as an end, and not a mean, what works will vary – your rugby buddies won’t have the same relationship as the girl you discussed Sartre with at midnight in university.

3) People will forgive you if they think you really like them and value them for themselves and not just for what you get from the relationship. They will also do things for you they would never do for someone who has a purely instrumental relationship with them. The rub is – it runs both ways.

I sure as heck wouldn’t want all my business relationships to be friendships as defined above.

But I have some business relationships that are friendships – bosses and coworkers I have done things for I didn’t have to – oddly, those are mostly the people who then helped me when they really didn’t have to; the ones who put themselves on the line for me when I was under attack, or who helped me when I was, frankly, my own worst enemy.

(Recommended reading, on a slightly related topic: “Impro” by Keith Johnstone. Read the section on status relationships. David, in particular, there is a section where Johnstone discusses how he would start classes by sitting on the floor so he was lower than his students, and by telling the participants that if they fail in the class it is his fault, not theirs.”)

posted on October 21, 2006

Karen Love said:


I was recently referred to a book, FIERCE CONVERSATIONS by Susan Scott. A lovely and very successful Executive Director of a Not for Profit was the one that shared this valuable counsel with me.

The core of the book is based on “conversations being the workhorse of a leader and of an orgaization and while no one conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a company—any single conversation can”. Susan Scott’s wisdom is articulated in the above sentence and has changed my thinking about how to deal with being present for each and every interaction.. There is more where this came from and using these with my Executive Coaching sessions to improve myself with each and every conversation feels great!

posted on October 23, 2006