Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Repairing a Mentor Relationship


Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

I recently found out that someone who was a confidante and a friend has been speaking badly about me to our mutual mentor. My relationship with this mentor has been deteriorating rapidly in the past year, and I could never understand what was going on. We all have very public positions in our community, and now, whenever I speak and my mentor is there, she interprets everything I say as a veiled attack. (And then of course, she responds publicly from that mental space.)

I also admit that when I saw the deterioration, I distanced myself from my mentor in hopes that she would see me in a better light because I was respecting her space.

My mentor is someone I care about deeply. Is there any hope of repairing the relationship with her? How?

Hopeful Mentee

A Dear Mentee,

When relationships we care about enormously start to fail or finally collapse, we feel the pain. Sometimes, trying to cope with the situation, we tell ourselves stories that the relationship doesn’t mean that much and we try to shrug it off. We bury our feelings in some deep part of ourselves and hope they wither. They seldom do. They churn and toss and turn and hurt. So how do we take care of these relationships? Whether it’s a mentor, confidante, friend, neighbor, colleague, or family member, what steps can we take?

My first bit of advice, and this may be the toughest step, is to catch and work on the problem early. Why is this tough? First, we don’t want to be too touchy or paranoid. We give the other person the benefit of the doubt. They are our mentor or friend, for Pete’s sake. Also, life is complex and moves fast, and sometimes we just aren’t aware of a problem until the relationship has fractured a bit. Still, fixing anything is easier when we catch it early. So how do we know when we should speak up? There are two key indicators that we can rely on to become more aware of our need to speak up. The first is that the “little voice” in our heads won’t go away. Okay, I can hear you saying, “Switzler, you may hear voices, but I don’t.” Actually, I don’t think I’m an anomaly here. Of course, my little voice sounds way too much like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, but that’s another story. Generally, that voice is sounding off with such comments as, “It’s not fair!” or “How could they?” or “Here they go again,” or “This is going to destroy my career and there’s nothing I can do about it,” etc. When this happens, the first option is to wait a bit. We just observe and get more data, and sometimes we realize that we over-generalized or were wrong because the little voice goes away. Then again, sometimes that little voice doesn’t go away. That is the first indicator that you need to bring up the issue. In your question, you mentioned that this issue has gone on for a year. That can be a big concern.

When the little voice doesn’t go away, we get to the second indicator—we start acting out our concerns. We do that in a number of ways. We show subtle judgmental nonverbals—we give them “the eye,” or our tone of voice betrays us, etc. Or we move to gossiping. There are dozens and dozens of ways that that little voice can leak out and betray us. When you catch yourself acting out your feelings instead of talking them out, pay attention. This is another huge indicator that you need to speak up—now. By paying attention to both of these indicators, you can catch relationship problems early.

My second piece of advice is to remember to master your stories. In this newsletter, we seem to bring this up a lot. Why? I think because clever stories can be so very, very clever. A clever story is what we tell ourselves to justify our own silence or violence and feel good about it. Primarily I’m worried about the stories that keep us from speaking up such as, “They’ll just get upset if I bring that up,” or “They should be apologizing to me; I did nothing wrong,” or “Time will cure this; I’ll just wait for five or six years.” In order to overcome our stories, we need to assault them with questions. The three we teach in Crucial Conversations are

  • Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?
  • Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
  • What can I do right now to get what I really want for me, for the other person, and for our relationship?

When we address these questions, we start our brains functioning on a higher level and we get more options for taking action that will be mutually beneficial. The answers to these questions help us control our emotions and overcome our unwillingness to speak up.

The last piece of advice is to trust in your relationship and to share your good intentions. The good relationship you’ve had is built on a history of good deeds, good times, and trust. I’ve coached people in personal situations and in business settings hundreds of times to go to the other person and share what they really want. I encourage them to find a safe, private environment and time, and begin with something like this:

“Could we talk about our relationship? It seems like we’ve not been working together as effectively recently as we have been in the past. I very much want to have a good relationship. I may have done some things wrong. I have some observations I’d like to share and questions I’d like to ask. I think it would help if we could talk. Would that be okay?”

Most of the time, when the details are put on the table, when questions get answered, when past actions are explained, when issues become clear, when intentions are shared, there are options for moving forward that lead to relationship repairs and, in fact, relationships that are stronger.

Of course, there are exceptions, but most of the time improvements occur when you honestly and respectfully address a problem.

This last statement leads to my last comment. Time and silence heal almost nothing. Both are given too much credit. What leads to improvement is safe, caring dialogue. I hope you’ll prepare yourself, find the time and place, and then ask your mentor to talk with you about improving your relationship—a relationship that clearly you care about a lot.

Best wishes,
Al Switzler

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