[image via wikimedia.org]
Conflict mediation is a field of its own, but unless you’re a part of a large company with the resources to utilize conflict mediators, it often comes down to managers to mediate conflict between employees (and customers, too). Conflict is inevitable in the workplace, just like anywhere else – clashing personalities and differing expectations are bound to appear. How can you, as a manager, best mediate conflict in the workplace?
If mediation isn’t something you’ve encountered before, there are plenty of resources to get you started. Grande Lum’s book about mediation, Tear Down the Wall: Be Your Own Mediator in Conflict is a helpful, accessible read. Mediate.com is another resource that can help you as you begin.
Understand Negotiation Logistics
The first step in becoming comfortable with conflict mediation is understanding the basic stages of negotiation. They may not occur in the “right order” in real life, but they are important to remember as you begin mediating:
- Convening: Decide whether it will work best to bring both parties together to begin, or whether it would be better to start by meeting with them individually.
- Opening: Begin by having both parties present their statement of the case. It’s important to create a safe environment for both sides before bringing them together, usually by coaching each party individually on what to say.
- Communication: Parties express anything that might affect negotiations (personal or legal information, etc).
- Negotiation: Your job is to create an atmosphere of trust and encourage both parties to be flexible (more on that later).
- Closure: Everyone has the information they need to close the mediation. You aid the process of finding an outcome that works for both parties.
Listen and Empathize
The bottom line of mediation is to truly listen and empathize with both sides. Remember that a conflict comes from differing expectations and underlying needs. Without taking the time to really hear what both parties are saying underneath the anger and frustration, you won’t be able to find a solution.
In a one-on-one conversation with each side of a conflict, let them vent and be angry. That anger is covering up a need or fear underneath, and you won’t get to the deeper feelings until the anger can be let out and calmed down.
The angry person needs to know he is being heard and trusts you to listen without judgment. From there, you need to put yourself in that person’s shoes and say so. “I can see why that is so frustrating. Last week I was in a similar situation…” After that, you can start to figure out what’s driving the anger and work to get at a solution that fulfills needs on both sides.
Utilize Tricks and Tips
- “I” Statements: In any situation where there is tension or frustration, “I” statements are essential to moving the conversation forward. Encourage both parties to speak in “I” statements (and use them yourself).
For example, “I feel like I don’t have all of the information I need to get a job done correctly, so then I feel upset when I’m told I didn’t do good work,” is a much more constructive way of saying, “You set me up to fail! You never give me enough information to do a good job, so of course then you’re mad when I don’t do what you want. It’s your own fault, not mine.”
- Active Listening: Another way to make sure both parties feel they are being taken seriously is to let them tell their full story and vent as much as needed, while being an active listener. Not interrupting is key, but instead nodding and making small gestures and verbal acknowledgements that you are listening will signal to the person speaking that you want to hear what they have to say, which will put them at ease.
- Ask the Right Kinds of Questions: Open-ended questions will be received much more positively than short, directive questions. “Can you tell me about it from the beginning?” is a good way to start. The parties in a conflict are already on the defensive; they don’t want to feel like they are being interrogated.
- Refrain from Blaming: Human beings always want to be right. It’s important, as a mediator, for you to guide conversations away from the inevitable battle between “Who is right?” back to “How can we work together to find a solution?” Looking forward rather than dwelling on past “wrongs” will move the negotiation forward.
Realize Not Every Conflict Has a Solution
It may not be reassuring to hear, but not all conflicts have a “win-win” solution just waiting to be discovered. Sometimes both parties will walk away just as frustrated as they came in. That doesn’t mean you failed as a mediator, it just means you can’t win them all. Celebrate your successes, pick your battles, and live to negotiate another day.