How to Rebuild a Damaged Work Relationship

A friend and colleague asked for some advice about rebuilding her relationship with a coworker. The relationship used to be easy. The two worked well together, laughed often, and accomplished their department’s goals cooperatively.

When a change of leadership in the organization caused a realignment of roles, my friend Mary and her coworker Sarah (not their real names) got out of synch. Sarah’s responsibilities with the new leader increased, which reduced her availability to support Mary.

Trying to make things work, Mary stayed curious and open-minded about the change, asking for help when needed. Both the new leader and Sarah seemed to hear when Mary expressed her need for support, but nothing changed. Mary ended up finding other ways to get the department’s work done, usually by staying late and working weekends.

Mary also thought she noticed a change in Sarah’s attitude — from friendly conversation to terse replies, minimal eye contact and limited connection. Trust eroded, and gradually they stopped talking unless it was absolutely necessary.

As you might imagine, Mary began to dream up stories and interpretations for Sarah’s changed behavior. I suggested Mary invite Sarah out for a cup of coffee, lunch, or a sweet and talk about the relationship. Mary emailed me asking how to begin the conversation. I thought my answers might be helpful to anyone in this situation, and Mary gave me permission to share her story and my thoughts.

Mary’s Letter

Hi Judy,

Thank you so much for our conversation last week. It really got me thinking in a more open minded way. I have some ideas about how to approach and perhaps work with Sarah but would like your opinion.

  1. I thought about writing her an email expressing how I miss working with the creative, funny Sarah and acknowledging how we have both done things to break trust with each other, then inviting her to join me in trying to create a workplace where we can both flourish as we work together. The reason for the email is that I don’t want to spring this on her out of the blue and have her feel she has to make an immediate decision.
  • I could share your book with her and we can work this out in our own way.

Thanks for your advice,


Judy’s Reply

Hi Mary,

Thanks for your email and questions. I admire your positive intention and commitment to rebuilding the relationship with Sarah.

Re: Idea #1 — Although I usually don’t recommend email in situations like this, your suggestion makes sense for your purpose. I hesitate slightly on: “I miss working with the creative, funny Sarah” because it suggests she is no longer those things. I know for you she is not, but it might create defensiveness in Sarah.

I’d also wait until you got together in person to share (your story) of how each of you has done things to break trust. These are strong words. Once you’re face to face, you might consider: It feels like there’s less trust between us than there used to be. Am I wrong?

I would also keep the request email non-specific. Maybe something like:

Hi Sarah — Hoping all’s well and you’re looking forward to the weekend. When you have time, can we get together over coffee?

This might be enough, but if you feel the need to be more specific:

Our work relationship is important to me. I’ve been feeling some distance between us, and I didn’t want any more time to pass before I talked with you about it. Maybe it’s just me, and it would help to hear your thoughts. I want things to be as smooth as possible between us.

Remember, Mary, that anything you share in writing or in person is your version of how you see the world. Her view may be completely different. What if she thinks nothing whatsoever is wrong in the relationship? I know it’s hard to believe, based on what you’ve shared with me, but it helps to keep in mind that we don’t know what her view looks like.

Re: Idea #2 — These are all positive suggestions for how things could go. You may also find that with your positive ki, purpose, and intentionality (your biggest asset), you may only need a couple of conversations — one that allows you to share each of your stories about what’s happening and create a scenario for the future, and one or more to follow up and ask each other how it’s going. I’d practice first with the 6-Step Checklist in the back of Turn Enemies Into Allies.

I hope these thoughts give you some support. I look forward to hearing how things go!


Lessons and Request

Lessons from this conflict scenario:

  1. Don’t assume. Know that the way you see things is not the only way. There are many. The number of interpretations is limited only by the number of people involved.

I hope this helps with your next conflict opportunity. If you have a minute, please let me know below if this question and response format is useful, and if the scenario is relevant. Thanks!

Written by

Judy Ringer is the author of Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace and Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict.

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