Bridge Repair

Sometimes we burn bridges.  We might not mean to do it or at the time, we might not care that we are doing it.  But, at some point, we might wish to repair it.  I’m one of those folks that finds it hard to believe that a burned bridge can’t be fixed.  I suppose in some circumstances this is true; but, I tend to think that there are ways to repair these severed relationships.

Hopefully, you are not seeking the repair solely because you now need that person/connection for your own gain, though,  I think that is probably one of the top motivators for people trying to go back and fix something they messed up. Whatever the case, it is almost always in your best interest to repair damaged relationships in your professional life.  It’s best if you take the steps necessary to prevent these types of situations; but, even if you have burned bridges, there is hope.

So, how do you fix a burned bridge?

There are some steps you can take; but, your motivation has to be sincere.  Even if you are driven to repair it because you find yourself in a situation where you need to reconnect with that person, you still need to truly and sincerely wish that you handled things differently.

Bridge Repair 101

1.  Make two lists.  The first will contain a list of the things that YOU did to participate in the demise of the connection.  Next you will make a list of all the reasons why you did what you did.  If you did it right, the second list will be way longer.

2.  Take the second, longer list, read it over once, crumple it up and throw it away.  You are done making excuses.  Move on.

3.  Take the first list and break it down into individual acts.  Make a new list of the consequences caused by your actions.

Here’s an example from my life:  when I was younger, about 23 or so, I walked off a job with no notice.  I had reasons (excuses) at the time.  My list might look like this:

1.  went to lunch and never went back
2.  never called to let them know I wasn’t returning
3.  didn’t apologize when the manager finally called me 10 days later


1. store was left short staffed
2. manager didn’t know what happened to me
3. left coworkers in the lurch

4.  Use these two lists to script your apology.  Mine might look like this:

Joe, when I worked for you in 1991, I quit using a technique that I now find rather embarrassing.  I would like to apologize for walking off the job.  I realize that the retail Christmas season was just starting and I left you and my coworkers short handed during a very busy time of year.  I just wanted to let you know that I’m sorry I handled it that way.

If it is a more complex situation than the one I’ve described, perhaps you still work with the person or people, the strategy is pretty much the same except that after you apologize, you make sure that your behavior matches your new attitude.  If you have pissed people off by not being a team player or by being hyper critical of new ideas, you apologize and if the situation warrants you can even outline the strategies you are undertaking to change your ways.  From that point on, you make sure your behavior supports your apology.

This is sort of a simplistic sounding remedy; but, repairing a burned bridge is mostly about YOU being self aware and be willing to sincerely apologize and do the things necessary to build trust again.  I have an acquaintance who realized that she had burned bridges at the job where she still worked because she had trouble controlling her anger and she took everything, EVERYTHING, personally.  Do you know what she did?  She started seeing a therapist.   I can’t say that things changed immediately; but, I suspect that over time, things will change for the better in her work situation.  The self awareness that led her to seek help will serve her well in the long run.

When a burned bridge is keeping you from advancing, I think there is an extra step.  In addition to apologizing and backing your apology up with new behaviors, you can outright ask your boss what you need to do to improve your chances for advancement.  Sometimes, no amount of repair will change a supervisor’s opinion enough to give you a fair shake in the office.  Sometimes, people in management positions are vindictive or hold grudges.  It’s worth a try and in the end your attempts at improving a relationship will help you navigate future relationship with more skill.  It’s NEVER a waste of time to try and fix a mistake.


3 thoughts on “Bridge Repair

  1. Ann, I am so behind on my email notifications for posts – and I almost felt guilty about it, until I realized this is the EXACT day I needed to read this post! 🙂

    What I hate most are the times when I didn’t mean to burn a bridge. A year ago I said something in jest that wounded a friend’s feelings. In hindsight, I know that the feelings behind my “joke” were envy and my own unhappiness with my situation, and of course some biases from long-held opinions that I am trying to release. I was lucky that she confronted me in an email about it. At the time, I was put off – ‘Didn’t she know I was just kidding?!” I thought. I apologized, and clarified what I meant.

    I didn’t see her for eight months (she was traveling), but this week when I finally saw her again (I was eagerly celebrating her achievements), I realized there was a distance between us. She treated me as an acquaintance, not a friend. I knew what I had done to cause this distance, but I wished my apology would have been sufficient to relieve her hurt feelings.

    In retrospect had I been the one to receive those comments, I imagine I, too, would have kept my distance. I may not have even confronted her. But in other retrospect, I feel like burning bridges – when inadvertent – is sometimes out of my control. I wish that she would have considered my intention and my character and realized this was an exception to my typical behavior. Realized that my offense was not intended – that I quite literally had unwittingly put my foot in my mouth. So the question is… should I apologize again? My ego wants me to be angry at her for holding a grudge, but I know this is unfair (I might do the same thing). In the end, I think it would be better to remember this experience for my future “foot in mouth” moments and to also give more compassion to those who hurt my feelings. In the future, I will remember to consider their intention and character, and give them a chance to explain themselves and release my anger instead of cutting them out of my life…. I am so glad I read this post. I loved it – such a great process to mend a mistake. You are awesome Ann!

  2. Hmmm. You have brought up some good questions. I think that if you are interested in trying to heal and repair the relationship because you value her friendship, I’d approach her again. There is nothing wrong with making yourself vulnerable ..check out Brene Brown’s TED talk on Vulnerability…it’s really eye opening. A chunk of time has passed and perhaps revisiting with her would bring some healing to you both. you never know.

    Sometimes I have gained the most in life, when I have traveled to my most vulnerable places.

    That said, I think sometimes it is fine to knock the ball into the other person’s court and leave it at that. It is up to them to keep it going.

    My ex is not perfect. She is human like the rest of us; but, she has taught me some of my deepest lessons about compassion. After our breakup, in that murky period when we were broken up, but so afraid of what comes next that we were still back and forth about the split, I did something that was hurtful to her. It wasn’t wrong or intended to hurt her; but, I’m sure it did cause her sadness. Two years later, after living apart and doing some soul searching and going through grief counseling and just getting back on my feet, I actually woke up in a lurch one morning thinking of that incident. I knew immediately that I needed to apologize. I called her and reminded her of this incident and I apologized. She thanked me and said, “You were doing the best you could at the time.” And that was true. And it was so generous and compassionate of her to recognize and acknowledge it. She gave me the freedom to fail and understood that my failure did not define me.

    Your “foot in the mouth” does not define you.

  3. Ann, thank you. So, so much! I will most definitely consider your advice – because you are right. And one of the hardest things for me to do is be vulnerable and open myself up to ridicule in the most personal of ways. In that sense, it is probably most worth doing.

    You are great!

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