Everytime we sever ties with our employer, we're determined not to look back. Yet in the mysterious ways that life works, sometimes circumstances prevent us from moving forward completely and we find ourselves going back to the hands that fed us. Perhaps we acted out of rash, perhaps we didn't foresee the tables turning. Either way, crawling back to the people you burned bridges with is an unpleasant experience. You have to swallow your pride and ego, risk being laughed in your face in order to take back what was given to you that you willingly threw away. Rebuilding burned bridges can be tricky, but not entirely impossible. As the saying goes “What is broken can be mended.” After all, humans have emotions and time heals all wounds, which means their feelings towards you can change for the better, provided it is handled with tact. Let’s look at how we can rebuild burned bridges.
Think through it
Before you decide to drop the ego and go knocking on the doors of the people that you blew off in spite of all the obstacles, you might wanna think about the reasons for doing so. What are you hoping to accomplish out of this reconciliation attempt? Are you genuinely sorry about the past? Are you merely stomaching this just to gain favors out of them? Is this a business move, or do you feel a genuine sense of remorse for your behavior and want to salvage things? Clarity will show you underlying feelings, emotions and motives that may not be clear from the get-go. Establishing your reason for mending a broken relationship will serve as a focal point and guiding compass as you learn to address the tension between you and the other party, and it will determine your subsequent moves during reconciliation.
So you’re determined to patch things up, remember that your singular goal is to rebuild the bridge you torched, and it has to start with very small baby steps.
Is the person you blew off a current employer? Make a note to smile and greet them every time you brush shoulders. Are they an ex-employer? Try reaching out via their LinkedIn with a request to connect for the first step. The first thing to do is to get your foot in the door, instead of your face (literally). You’re here to remind them of your presence, and this is you saying that you’re taking the first step to rebuild what was previously destroyed. You’re laying down the groundwork for communication and your subsequent gestures, which will better fit in the grander scheme of things. Here are some other (virtual and non-virtual) subtle cues that you could take note of:
● Holding the door open for them
● Referring a colleague-in-need to them
● Complimenting their getup of the day
● Casually involving them in work discussions by seeking their professional expertise via email
● Congratulating them over their success on LinkedIn
The fact of the matter is, the person you’re trying to reconcile with may or may not be aware of your intentions already, but they’re not hard up to get your approval. After all, they were not the ones who severed ties and they have nothing to lose from maintaining radio silence. Even if you firmly believe they were the catalyst for you to flip the bird or bare your nastiest feelings about them, this is the one time you’ll have to swallow your pride and put it down. Keep at your efforts and try to look for an opening. Lastly, remember that subtle cues alone are not enough to mend bridges. In fact, people may continue to give you the cold shoulder treatment. However, once you have created the opening, that is the slightest of a reaction, that you need to break through, it’s time to put the real work in.
Actually reaching out
Now that the other party is aware of your presence, this is a good time for you to actively approach them. Try to find the right time to broach the sensitive topic at hand. Refrain from reaching out during a hectic or emotionally sensitive period. Approaching a bitter colleague when they’re at the busiest may even jeopardize your odds of reconciling at all and potentially hammer the final nail into the coffin. The approach needs to be methodical and systematic. If you’re having jitters from speaking to them in person, try sending an email in place. You could phrase your opening in a similar manner:
● I don’t know what went wrong, but I would very much love to understand what happened and try
to fix this
● The tension between us saddens me and it would be great if I could have a second chance to make
it up to you
● I regretted that we didn’t part on good terms and I’m wondering if we could talk about that
● I’ve been thinking about what happened between us and it would mean a lot to me if we could sit
down and discuss this in person sometime
Be direct and forthcoming about your intentions. Refrain from peppering your messages with fluffs. If you think your advances are well-received by the opposite party, you may even suggest a location, date and time for all of you to discuss things.
Actually apologize. If your “old flame” decides to open up to you, and agrees to sit down for a face-to-face chat, the first thing you should do is apologize, truly and sincerely. If you’re having a hard time apologizing, consider following these few steps:
● Admittance - “I’m sorry for what I did.”
● Acknowledgement - “My actions have upsetted you greatly.”
● Repentance - “I now realize I shouldn’t have done that and I deeply regret my actions.”
● Acquittance - “Will you forgive me?”
● Arrangement - “How can I make it up to you?”
Apologizing shows that you’re actively taking the blame for what happened, and places the recipient in a position of power. This allows them to feel better about themselves and may even open them up to the possibility of taking partial responsibility for the incident - “I’m sorry for acting out of hand, I’m partially at fault.”
Be mindful of your tone and language as you relay your apology across. As always, frequent uses of “I” and lesser “You(s)” are helpful to ease the ongoing tension. Never let your pride and ego get in the way of making things right. And don’t get complacent and start displaying a shift in tone if the recipient starts taking the blame for what happened too. You’re not here to have the last say. You’re here to apologize and mend the broken relationship.
Only initiate the apology attempt when you truly feel like you’re ready to do so. If at any point you find yourself apologizing just to appease your conscience, go back, rewind and think through your motives again. If you’re not genuinely apologetic, you’re not ready to rebuild the bridge at all.
On a final note, some relationship experts recommend apologizing over a meal, coffee or gift to ease the tension. Personally, we’re not a fan of apology gifts as we think they muddle the significance of your apology. However, certain individuals do respond well to such treatment, and if that works in your case, by all means, feel free to do so.
Really listen. Now that you’ve delivered the apology and the other party is a little more comfortable opening up, you have the continued responsibility of providing a safe and transparent ground for these past feelings to resurface. An effective apology is accompanied by effective listening too. Sometimes, we may base our understanding of the conflict on our perception alone, which is insufficient to quell the misunderstanding between both parties. Instead of questioning the recipient’s feelings and thought process, seek to understand the matter from the recipient’s perspective. Did I overreact? Were they going through a rough patch? Were things taken out of context?
Strive to repeat what was said, as that shows that you’re actively listening and processing what you’ve been told. This will also create a more positive impression of you in the recipient’s eyes. At any point you feel the need to correct or clarify any statements, speak gently and softly, and if the recipient calls you on behavior, be sure to reassure them that you’re actively taking steps to address things. Rectifying your behaviors, and not just taking responsibility for them, shows maturity and growth, and it makes your apology much more genuine and convincing.
The coup-de-grace is out. The two of you have said your sorry(s), you have bore your feelings out, to seal the deal, now’s the time for both parties to establish boundaries. Make an effort to ensure this doesn’t happen again by laying down certain ground rules to your relationship. Here are a few phrases that you can use to communicate to the other party:
● Please let me know if I overstep my boundaries again
● If you ever feel like my behavior makes you feel uncomfortable, please call them out
● We will no longer talk about the incident in any form moving forward
● At any point my actions rub you off the wrong way, please talk to me as soon as possible
Make it a point to check in on each other’s progress from time to time. Just like a newly built bridge atop the old one, remember that this renewed relationship is fragile and requires fortifying. In the meantime, learn to carry and regard the relationship with utmost professionalism, cordiality and formality. It takes time for the sense of camaraderie, familiarity and candidness to return, and there may be a chance that the two of you will never revert to the same degree of amiability that you once held, and that’s okay. What matters is that you’ve safely mended the relationship and things can begin anew. The rest, as they say, is left up to fate.
Be prepared for any outcome
Things can take a turn for the worse at any point of the process, and that is unfortunately beyond our control. At times, our reconciliation efforts may be rebuffed by the other party. After all, it takes two to tango and a relationship can only begin anew if both parties can agree to bury the hatchet. Even if your efforts were not well received, you can take comfort in knowing that you’ve successfully come to terms with your past mistakes, and to finally let go of the bitterness, remorse and sorrow that comes with it. Think of it as a closure for yourself. Perhaps the other party is not ready to face the matter. Perhaps they need time to process things. Some others choose to adopt a once bitten, twice shy policy, preferring to accept the apology but choosing to maintain the distance regardless. Either way, taking the first step to apologizing and making amends sets the precedence for others to follow in your footsteps. You may inspire others to do the same to rekindle a broken relationship, and at the very least, you can walk out with your head held high.
Or leave it in the past
Old habits die hard and you can’t teach someone to let go of their grudges if they don’t want to. Assuming your (ex)employers or colleagues were a bunch of horrible people to deal with and you’ve successfully regained favors with them, what now? Are you willing to subject yourself to another vicious cycle of mental abuse and toxic work culture again? If burning bridges was the right thing to do, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to walk away in the first place. Regardless of the stakes at hand, moving on might be the best course of action. If it’s not worth your time and health, why bother?
Look before you leap…
Burning bridges is an unpleasant affair, and rebuilding a brand new bridge from ashes is even worse. Perhaps it is futile to dwell about the water under the bridge at this point, but we feel the need to caution readers about burning bridges in the first place. If you’re one to have second thoughts or regrets about burning bridges, perhaps lay off going berserk on your employers. Call it an error of judgment, a spur of the moment reaction, a cathartic/healing process, some words can’t be taken back once they’ve gone out. Next time, be sure to assess the situation properly before doing the unthinkable, or try finding a middle ground to the problem instead - Such as playing nice with people but keeping a respectable distance instead, that’s not such a bad alternative.