I work with individuals and teams in organizational settings who are experiencing stress as a result of work-related conflict.
At times all that is needed to break the impasse of a conflict is coaching on how to engage a difficult conversation productively. At other times, that is not enough. Especially in circumstances where parties have already tried to engage together and have repeatedly failed – there are often other systemic factors at play.
The chances are the conflict is more complex than it appears. That is probably why it has resisted easy solutions or the more blunt instrument of everyday listening and talking.
Complex problems often require deeper listening and more perspectives to solve. That kind of dialogue often requires assistance. Partly because it’s not how we usually talk with each other. And partly because when we are directly impacted, it’s harder to keep objective.
Having a neutral third party come in to help break the impasse of conflict is called “mediation.”
Third sider assistance is a key dynamic in collaborative cultures (see the article on The Third Side on my website for more information on how traditionally peaceful cultures use “third siders”). Third siders urge parties to sit down and talk out their differences.
In our culture, we usually think strangers (or third parties of any kind) have no place in our personal conflicts. In an individualistic culture like ours, it can be easy to think no one else is noticing our conflict and that no one else is affected.
That’s an illusion of our dominant culture! People are noticing and other people are affected. Believe me, I’ve heard this personally from hundreds of people. And you need only think of your own life. When someone in your workplace is in conflict with someone else (not even you) – doesn’t it affect you somehow? Even if it’s only a knotting up in your stomach – you are impacted. Emotions are contagious!
We don’t have models for how third siders can get involved. In fact, we call parties who could have a proactive role “witnesses.” In the way we define a witness, they are usually there, not to reduce conflict, but to protect one party and sometimes even to collect evidence for the one side to be “right.”
Third siders do not take sides but in fact help to bring all sides out. We need multiple perspectives to be heard to arrive at the heart of the matter.
So, it can take a bucket full of courage to call a mediator when our culture doesn’t support it. You calling on a mediator for help is an heroic act. You are admitting that you need help and in that way, admitting that we need each other. We do.
Organizations can go a long way to normalizing conflict and the possibility for third side assistance by adjusting their policies to include guidance on how to deal with issues when help is required. There can be a clause which has mediation as an option if parties cannot agree or if a “by stander” sees the conflict they too can ask for mediator help.
Even more proactive is to designate people as the go-to conflict coaches. As a certified coach myself, I’ve worked with many people who have seen others in conflict but didn’t know what to do. There are many active peace-making roles third siders can play, such as offering a conflict coaching assistance or help with running a dialogue circle or even facilitating a difficult conversation for others. We all have a contribution to make in conflict.
Normalizing third side assistance would make picking up the phone to call a mediator in for help a whole lot easier. For now, it’s still difficult to be seen asking for mediation. But there are educational components to going through a mediation process. The learning is as useful as coaching. It’s almost like “group coaching” – where two or more individuals are supported to find new ways of communicating through their differences.
When mediation can be seen as the professional development opportunity it truly is, our culture will have truly shifted. For now, we can be satisfied with smaller micro cultures in organizations who are brave enough, or in enough pain, to pick up the phone and call a mediator.
So if you do call a mediator, what can you expect?
There are many types of mediation styles and many types of mediators (it is not a regulated field).
Most mediators in North America will be influenced to some extent by the mediation style taught at the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute – where I have been on staff for almost 25 years. We are the top school on the West Coast of Canada for teaching the “interest-based” mediation and negotiation style of resolving conflict. Our curriculum was originally informed by the Harvard Negotiation Project and their popular book Getting to Yes.
While that style and approach is still dominant in the mediation profession, there are other approaches which influence the style of some mediators. Here is a short explanation of the four most common philosophical approaches to resolving conflicts. I adhere to pieces of each of them:
1) Interest-based – Given I’ve been steeped in the interest-based approach, it should be no surprise that this is the backbone of my approach to conflict in the workplace. The interest-based approach is based on the premise that everyone in conflict has a basic, human set of needs that are usually not evident in the midst of conflict. So instead of getting curious about what is driving parties in conflict – those in conflict tend to get distracted by assuming negative intentions about each other and using blaming language to try to express their needs. That prevents parties from inquiring about what is most important to each about the solutions they are so vigorously hanging on to. What we find out is that the solution to the problem is not as important as the need it is addressing. This “interest-based” approach is also inherent in Marshall Rosenberg’s “Non-Violent Communication” and is another methodology I find useful and powerfully simple.
2) Transformative mediation – A cornerstone of the narrative mediation approach is the idea that conflict is an opportunity for “moral growth” in two areas: one’s own sense of empowerment and in one’s capacity to recognize (feel more compassion for) the other. This is a guiding principle in the work that I do with organizations and individuals. This principle makes me mindful that the conflict is yours, not mine. It’s yours because the opportunity to own some more of your power is hidden within the conflict. I am there to help you access it. This principle also makes me mindful to search for the opportunities that arise to help each of you notice the “olive branches” you extend to the other. Those are the precious moments of recognition which often go unnoticed yet have within them the power to unlock hearts and move exponentially towards new understandings, new information and therefore new solutions.
3) Narrative mediation – We are a story-telling species. Our brains are built to fill in the gaps with creative imaginings in the absence of information. The narrative approach posits conflict arises from a clash of stories and the way forward is to co-create a new story together. Thinking of the “facts” that people bring to conflict as their story can be helpful as it keeps one open to considering other pieces of facts (or stories) out there. Thus begins the weaving together of different facts/pieces of the puzzle) to arrive at one coherent picture. I find it important to not get caught up in who has “THE TRUTH”. I don’t believe truth is “relative” – that is, I don’t believe my truth is valid and the ONLY truth. This would be the same as looking at one piece of a puzzle and declaring that’s the whole picture. I believe one’s truth is valid and only ONE part of the truth. This more systemic perspective keeps people seeking to understand others to gain a better, broader, deeper understanding of what’s going on and how to move to a better place.
4) Restorative/Circle Approach – In the 1990s, I co-led a Victim-Offender Mediation program in conjunction with the Criminal Court System. It was here that I was first introduced to the notion of “Restorative Justice.” Essentially, the idea is if we simply shame and ostracize those who have committed crimes, we produce prisons full of hardened, unhealed people released back into society more hardened. By shifting the focus from “punishment” to “restoration” – the need for reintegrating into society becomes paramount. In my time with the justice circles, it was powerful to watch those charged with crimes face their victims and hear their stories and be moved and motivated to “make things right” in a way no court room could ever touch. The victims in the mediations I participated in also found their day in the mediation room much more satisfying and healing than the court room – where victim and offender do not talk with each other and have no say in what type of restitution is appropriate. A restorative approach fits well into the workplace – where it’s common to assume someone has done something “wrong” and someone should be “punished” when conflict arises. Using a restorative lens – which often involves using a Circle approach to dialogue – allows for various perspectives to be heard, for face to be saved and for appropriate resolutions to be found. This approach considers avoiding shame and increasing emotional safety as the way to create the right atmosphere for creative and restorative conflict solving.
My process, when wearing my mediator hat, is an educative and empowerment one. Often times, the conflict has escalated and there are key guidelines to be put in place to build a container of emotional safety. These guidelines are summarized in a short self-directed, online video course I recommend for all my mediation clients on how to have difficult conversations. There is a mindset, process and skills which help navigate us through conflict (If you are interested, the course is also available to the public here).
This starting place provides common language and process for everyone who enters into the mediative process. Having education be part of the mediation experience provides empowerment. All parties gain a common understanding for how to “do” conflict together in a respectful way that also allows getting to the “heart of the matter” quickly and efficiently.
With the support of such a tool, I may simply provide coaching to a leader who is mediating or I may be the mediator. In such a case, I meet individually with those impacted by the conflict – to establish connection, clarify the guidelines required and start to identify what they need to stay resourced. This phase of the process also involves gaining a better understanding of what the issues are and who else might need to be at the negotiating table.
After that initial assessment, the next step is often a meeting with everyone impacted. An “interest-based” approach to mediation has a set process – starting with an opening stage, moving to identifying the issues, exploring each issue to the point of mutual understanding, then helping parties to make more informed choices arising out of the new information they learn in mediation. A follow up is often part of this process as well – since change takes time and trust is based on seeing new agreements upheld.
If you are interested in exploring this service for yourself, your team, or for your employees, email me and we can set up a time to discuss your needs.
Phone: 250–381–7522 • E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org