Workplace conflict is inevitable. While some problems can be resolved internally by Human Resource or Management, other issues are more effectively settled with an outside Mediator. Often, it is easier for someone on the outside to evaluate the situation from both a systems’ perspective and on a personal level, than it is for an individual who is involved in the organization’s everyday operations.
In particular, an outside third-party can help when dysfunctional issues have been brewing over a longer period of time, when there have been multiple violations of policies or company norms, and/or when the leadership in the company concentrates on conflict avoidance rather than solution-focused interventions. Mediated Agreements can serve as a first step to take a dysfunctional workplace to a functional one. Throughout this process, certified mediators use several important techniques.
1. Ask Open Ended Questions. It is critical that the Mediator bring out what is happening in the system, not just what is happening with the few parties involved in the conflict. In this way, the ultimate agreement can also assist employers in minimizing future conflicts.
A respected Employment Law Mediator, Meredith Richardson, Esq. CPC, shares a series of questions that can assist Mediators in understanding the systematic issues that need to be considered, including:
What are the unspoken rules with respect to conflict in the organization?
Are there certain people who are allowed to be “high maintenance”?
Is the company really going to do anything about these people’s behaviors?
Is there any room for true discussions among those in different classifications/ranks/departments?
Is there an expectation that those with lower employment classifications will do what they are told by those with classifications above?
When a Mediator is curious and open-minded, he or she will get an outsider’s perspective regarding the organization and be able to help bridge gaps through agreement.
Open-ended questions are also important to understand the personal nature of the workplace issue. As the employer and employee explain their initial perspectives (sometimes provided in an opening statement), Mediators need to invite another level of understanding through questions like, “Can I ask you why that bothers you so much?” or “Why is that important to you?”
2. Listen to Understand. The only way to settle any dispute is to listen carefully to what the other person has to say. Through attentive listening, Mediators learn what the parties’ underlying interests are by letting them tell their stories from their perspectives until they get to the point where they share the obstacles that are blocking resolution. This takes patience and active listening skills. Simple things like nodding and expressing affirming short statements such as “yes, go on” can make the speaker feel as if his or her perspective and story is welcome. In some cases, the anger that triggers an employee’s desire to litigate or bring forth a grievance is really a secondary emotion for hurt or fear. By understanding the true needs and interests, “what they want and why” a Mediator determines the best way to identify shared goals and help the parties better understand each other in order to move forward.
3. Focus on the Future. While it is critical to allow the parties to vent about the past and evaluate what went wrong, effective workplace mediation involves an appropriately timed switch to future tense. In this regard, there is a point in the mediation where problem solving on what can be done to achieve resolution must become the focus, moving the emphasis from how things once were to a healthy working relationship with mutually agreeable, practical solutions. Mediators are trained to help the parties design desired future outcomes and solutions and assist them in the motivation to change.
4. Be Creative. Resolving conflict requires openness, listening, awareness and collaboration. It requires setting aside preconceived ideas. An effective Mediator enters a mediation open to possibility and encourages the parties to do the same. Mediators encourage those involved in the mediation to discuss creative solutions that meet both individual and organizational interests. The effective workplace Mediator facilitates idea exchange and incentivizes creative attempts to problem solving.