10 Ways to Repair a Burned Bridge

By Paul Michael on 29 October 2014 0 comments

"Don't ever burn bridges," is a piece of advice most of us have heard — more than once. Whether it's talking about your career or your personal life, the advice is sound. Should you burn a bridge, the ramifications can be serious. The Internet connects people all over the world, and one burned relationship can close hundreds of potential doors for you. And in your personal life, be it a relative or a friend, life is just too short to cut someone off forever. (See also: 6 Time-Tested Ways to Make a Relationship Work)

However, we all make mistakes. I, myself, have burned a few bridges. One, in particular, I napalmed; I never thought I'd need it again, and wanted to make sure that avenue was gone. Boy, was I wrong. It took months of work to repair that bridge. In fact, it was completely rebuilt. If you have done likewise, don't despair. You can repair a burned bridge. Here are 10 ways to get started.

1. Don't Let This Fester

The bridge may still be smoldering, or it could have burned up a long time ago. Either way, you can't let it stay this way one second longer. If you have just burned a bridge, make moves to repair it immediately and jump to the third point on this list. If it's been a while, even years, then you'll have to ease into it. But this has to happen sooner rather than later. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to repair.

2. Take Small Steps

The first way to start the healing process is to take small steps; very small steps. You cannot barge back into their life and expect them to be responsive. After all, you may have been mulling this over for months, but they have almost certainly moved past you. So, take the smallest steps back in their direction. If you unfriended each other on Facebook, start there. If it's a work relationship, try LinkedIn. If you see each other around, be friendly, even if they're cold. You don't have to make any grand gestures yet; you are simply preparing the groundwork.

3. Make the First Move

Once you've made some subtle steps, you have to be the one to reach across the aisle and start the healing. You can't expect the other person to make any kind of move towards you by dropping a few hints, or smiling in their general direction. You burned the bridge, even if their behavior led you to light the match. So put your pride to the side and reach out.

4. Be Sincere

When you do make your move, you have to be 100% committed to repairing the burned bridge. And that starts with sincerity. If you want something from the other person (for example, a job at his or her company) your half-hearted attempts at making up will be blatantly transparent. You do not want to come across as someone who is simply stomaching the process in order to get something valuable. If you cannot be sincere, this is not the right time. If you don't know how to be sincere because the wound is still open, this is definitely not the right time.

5. Admit You Were Wrong

"But I wasn't in the wrong, it was that idiot's fault!" Yes, of course, you may be feeling that way inside. But for whatever reason, you are trying to repair the bridge. The other person doesn't need to lift a finger because they have less to gain than you. So you may have to prepare a little humble pie for yourself, and eat it with a smile. By admitting you were wrong, you are giving the other person some closure in the matter, and are also elevating them. They have some power. They feel like they have the higher ground. From that position, it is much easier to reach out to reconcile.

6. Listen — Really Listen

If you are lucky enough to start a dialog (these initial attempts can often lead to being blanked), then you have the chance to find out their side of the story. This is the time to open yourself up to a paradigm shift. What were they going through at the time the rift happened? Did you misunderstand something that they did? Was the original dispute something small that got out of hand? Did you overreact to something? As you listen, repeat what you hear back to that person. One of the most important parts of conflict resolution is knowing that you are being heard, and understood.

7. Say "Sorry" (and Mean It)

When it comes to repairing a bridge, sorry can go a very long way. It's a small word, but it's one of the hardest for people to say (if you have kids, you'll know how difficult it can be to pry it out of them). It's one thing to admit you were wrong, but you have to back it up with an apology. The other person will appreciate it, even if they have a hard time hearing it at first. "I'm so sorry I ever let this get out of hand" can work wonders. It puts the responsibility on your shoulders, and that often makes the other person feel like they should take some of the blame too. "No, no, it was my fault to." Hey, look at that, there's some kind of resolution taking shape.

8. Ask for Forgiveness

This is another opportunity for you to eat crow, and put the other person in a position of power. There is no shame in asking someone to forgive your former transgressions. You can be stubborn, and say point blank that you did nothing wrong, but that won't get you where you need to go. It can be as simple as "can you ever forgive me for my actions?"

9. Lay Down Guidelines

There can be no repeat of what happened before. The best way to avoid this is to simply lay down a few rules for the way ahead. "We will no longer talk about x, y and z" or "please talk to me the second you see a concern" is a simple way to establish some boundaries. Have regular check ups, and make sure everything is going along smoothly. Small problems can escalate into big ones, and before you know it that bridge is starting to smolder again.

10. Do Not Take This for Granted

This is now a new and fragile relationship, even though you may have known each other for many years. You cannot fall back into the same routine that resulted in a burned bridge. Don't go back into old habits. You may have joked about certain things that were okay back then, but will be off-limits now (especially if it's related to the incident that caused the rift). At work, you may have treated this person as a friend, even though they may have been your a superior. You need to respect those barriers now. Be friendly, open, accessible, and if it's in a work environment, be professional.

Have you ever burned a bridge — and managed to repair it later? Please tell us about it in comments!

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10 Ways to Repair a Burned Bridge

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