Recently, I found myself on the receiving end of a stream of vitriol from someone I’d previously thought of as a close friend.
I was badly upset by it but decided not to follow the easy path of just deleting them from my address book and never speaking to them again and instead reached out to them to suggest a meeting to talk things over.
I’m so glad I did because at the end of an hour or so we had sorted out some big misunderstandings and cleared the air enough between us that we were able to trust each other again.
This is my summary of the main steps we followed, in the hope that they might be helpful if you’re ever in a similar situation.
1. Share how you both experienced what happened and hear each other’s description of how that felt—without defensiveness, justification, or judgement.
The important thing at this stage is to completely let go of the idea that either of you is (more) right. This isn’t easy when we feel we’ve been wronged and that the other person is to blame. But even if that were true, for there to be an open dialogue between you, they need to trust that you’ll keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions until you’ve heard their side of the story.
2. Each accept responsibility for your role in the misunderstanding and express regret for whatever hurt either of you caused the other, even if it was unintentional.
After you’ve each felt heard in an open-minded way, there’s space for understanding the reasons either of you had for acting or speaking the way you did. Even if that seems to be more on one side than the other, it takes two people to create an argument. Each person owning up to their part in it means that any painful feelings that have come up will be eased and is an essential step to reconciliation and repair.
3. Reflect on any personal issues that may lie behind what happened so you can know what to do about them.
By getting clearer about why any hurtful behaviour happened, it becomes easier for each person to know what changes they need to make in their behaviour and to promise that they will happen. An explanation is not an excuse or a way of avoiding taking the responsibility, which is an important part of any commitment to change.
4. Both reflect on—and share—how you could have handled the situation better and what personal work might help you to do that.
To act differently in the future, one of you may need some outside support—possible of a professional kind. This inner work that you can’t really share or do together, it is each person’s responsibility to do whatever is needed to ensure that they are sufficiently emotionally healthy to be able to contribute effectively to repairing the relationship.
5. Each commit to behaving and responding differently in the future—especially in any similar situation(s).
This is the all-important outcome. To have some sense of closure after remorse has been expressed and understanding gained, there needs to be a credible promise on both sides not to repeat any actions that have been upsetting for either of you. This has the dual effect of helping both of you to heal faster and reduces the risk that this unpleasant experience will be repeated.