On solving relationship problems: Sometimes repair work doesn’t make sense

This week I have been working hard on a series of audio recordings and a handout to help people with relationship repair work. (My target date for people to be able to download the audios and make use of them is mid-July!). Here is an excerpt from one of the audios, and it has to do with a problem that people frequently run into when trying to solve relationship problems:

Make sure you know exactly what you are repairing, making right, or changing. The following statements are things people may say to you when they are unhappy with your behavior, but do not offer enough much clarity or information about what needs to be different:

“We don’t like you. You are manipulative and obnoxious. You shouldn’t make a big deal out of this. In general, we have a bad feeling about you. You don’t fit into the culture here. We find you really annoying. We have noticed that other people here don’t seem to like you. People have complained about you.”

There is a difference between not being liked and trying to maintain or repair relationships when you have no solid information on how to make things right. When you do not know what you are supposed to change, it becomes extremely hard to change it! If you are invested in working with these types of scenarios, what you should try to do is get clear and specific feedback about what behaviors or instances the person is referring to. For instance, someone who says “You’re really annoying” should be able to say what it is you do that annoys them. Interrupting someone frequently, talking excessively about yourself, or glaring are much more specific behaviors and therefore much easier to figure out how (or if!) you are going to change them. If the person is truly unable to think of any examples of your behaviors than I would suggest that you pay attention to the relationship in the most graceful way possible- and limit your contact with this person to the best of your ability.

If you don’t know what the person is upset about, and if they are not sophisticated enough to give you clear and specific examples, you will not be able to do much in terms of repair work. And if you can’t do much in terms of repair work, then there is no good reason to be doing it! This may mean that you have to step apologizing for things that are beyond your control, step up and speak out, and ask people to spell things out for you- however painful it may be to hear. It may also mean pointing out that they have not given you any clear guidelines about their expectations for things to be different.