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It's a familiar scenario: two team members are making each other's life difficult and the situation has escalated into a fullblown conflict. Mediation expert John Crawley explains how to deal with the situation and work towards a solution for both sides
inManagement magazine issue 12, September 2013
Recent years have seen more managers start to think like mediators. They've realised that if they are positive rather than negative when a conflict comes along they are more likely to arrive at a resolution. Mediation has moved up the management agenda in part because of commercial reasons: escalated conflict costs a lot of money and involves considerable stress. Organisations are realising that if they train their managers in mediation and encourage a culture of conflict resolution, it can help avoid this. Managers with mediation skills also tend to be better managers overall. It instils confidence because if you know you can deal with the tough stuff, you can deal with any difficult conversation. It also heightens communication skills and powers of listening and encourages a more facilitating management style.
For those who want to formally upskill themselves in mediation, there are a number of courses from half-day workshops with actors to advanced courses that lead to accredited mediation qualifications (bear in mind that accredited training will be of a higher quality). Even if you do not take this route, you can learn the principles and stages of mediation and hone skills that will help you resolve workplace conflicts.
Step 1: Talk to Both Parties
Meet with the two parties individually to find out what the issues are. Explain that you won't tell the other party everything but that you will be hearing from both sides. Listen hard to what each person says and ask them to clarify anything that isn't clear. You must suspend your own judgement. This can be difficult if the two people are in your team so consciously take a step back. If you believe the problems can be solved by mediation, suggest that they both meet with you together to discuss matters further and try to arrive at a resolution.
Step 2: The Mediation Session
It is important to create the right environment for the mediation and impose a structure on proceedings. Before either side speak, outline the objectives of the meeting and set some ground rules: explain that each party must listen to each other properly, they must not talk over each other and they must treat each other fairly and with respect. Start with ‘uninterrupted time' when each person gets an opportunity to summarise the situation from their point of view. When both sides have listened to each other, ask them what they want to get out of the session in terms of a resolution. Try to get them thinking in the future direction rather than the past. This will move their focus away from what they think of each other and increase the chances of moving towards a resolution.
Emotions may ride high so as mediator you may be required to calm things down and there are diffusing techniques you can use for this. If one side talks over the other, make them pause, acknowledge their emotion, remind them that they agreed to take part in the mediation and request that they continue the conversation at a lower level. The best approach is proportionate conflict management where you start gently and toughen up if things don't change. A gentle but firm approach will often mean you don't have to escalate upwards. Some people make the mistake of diving in and being overly firm but then have nowhere to go if it doesn't work.
Step 3: Arriving at the Resolution
Ideally, both sides should arrive at the resolution rather than you. If they need encouragement, ask if there is one thing that the other could do to improve the situation. When exploring options, if an individual turns a request from the other down, ask what they are prepared to do. If the individuals feel they have ownership of the solution, it will have more chance of longer-lasting success. As mediator and their manager, your role is to try to encourage them to make small significant changes in their behaviour to arrive at the resolution and make it work. That all said, steer clear from mediating a solution that is outside of your remit or beyond your control. Some people like to have a written agreement but ideally most of what has been said in the room should remain confidential.
If, after trying, you can't reach a resolution, it may be time to call in the experts. Some organisations have developed a hybrid mediation solution which in addition to managers with mediation skills they have links with external mediators who can brought in when necessary.
John Crawley has 25 years experience in mediation and is general manager of People Resolutions Ltd. He is the author of the e-book Argument to Agreement - Resolving Disputes by Mediation and has also been instrumental in writing mediation skills into the National Occupational Standards for management and leadership.
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