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  • Writer's pictureLindsey Nickel

Unintentional Bridge Burning

Are you burning bridges without even knowing it? Are you confused sometimes when you get a less than enthusiastic reply from a donor, grant funder, supervisor, colleague, direct report or a vendor? Have projects that you thought were on course, suddenly explode, leaving you flabbergasted and defeated? If so, it may be time to examine your communication habits and see if you have a role in this “bridge burning” saga.

We all need to travel across bridges to get to the places we want and need to go. Why would you knowingly sabotage yourself or your agency by burning bridges? This results in limiting your choices and your opportunities in life. Unfortunately, too much bridge burning (whether it is warranted or not) will make you isolated from the outside world.

If you are like me, you enjoy communicating. You love hearing stories of human triumph and perseverance. And, you love telling stories. Especially funny ones. These communication exchanges have become a “go to” for you and you have excelled with relationship building because of it.

But alas, there are times when someone you thought you knew well ends up changing their typical behavior, and this throws you for a loop. If you only knew what their issue was, you would have worked to come up with a viable solution, but you were never given the chance. I’m attempting to zero in on identifying more deeply what makes our communications fruitful, industrious and inspiring, in contrast with being (sometimes unknowingly) hurtful, damaging and bridge-burning. Here are some elucidations…

Implement the Golden Rule.

Always meet and treat people the way you wish to be treated. Keep in touch with as many people as you can on the job (create a data communication system that is manageable and stick to it) and treasure all your personal and work relationships because they may not always last forever. You should desire to be on cordial terms with everyone, as much as possible.

Listen More, Talk Less. 

Hurtful communication attacks a problem with guns blazing, searching for blame. This is communication that is critical in nature and damaging. Helpful communication isn’t one-sided; it’s empathic, unguarded and receptive. Listen more, talk less. I love the video that was posted by Brene Brown on the subject of blaming, watch it at this link:

We know from the research that blame has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability and communication are intensely connected.

Follow Up and Follow Through

If you have agreed (whether by a hand shake or a signed contract), to work with someone and they have provided to you their part of the agreement, thank them, pay them, and thank them again. Become the Queen (or King) of Follow Up Land.  You will likely engage in hundreds, maybe thousands of business transactions in your career. Make them count. Be fair, reasonable and communicate immediately when there is an issue. Always be grateful. Do not wait for someone to provide you the work, and then tell them you can’t pay them due to cash flow, or differences in aesthetics.  We are all interconnected in many ways, and many of us rely on a “gig” economy. Not paying one of your vendors has an unintended ripple effect on many others. Refusing to pay for work completed is just bad karma, however you tally it up.  If you didn’t get the results or the work product you were hoping for, then there was likely an issue in your communication. Acknowledge it, make strides to change this for future projects and vendors, pay the bill, and move on.

The more productive way to approach this kind of challenge is to discuss the desired outcome and forge a stronger alliance with all the parties involved, so that all can feel inspired by your example of openness and collaboration. Together you will have a better chance at achieving your mutual goals, and you will lead without feeling like the bridges are collapsing around you.  Even with troubled waters, you still need that bridge. There is a famous Nigerian proverb that I love and it is so apropos to this post – “In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.”

Keep building my friends, and if you have to, scream, but keep building!

Big Scream, c. Grace Alfiero 2017, Krueger National Park, South Africa

Let me know your thoughts and experiences with building/burning bridges. What works for you?

-grace alfiero

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