Should Workplace Conflicts use Mediation?
© 2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW
Mediators are being increasingly asked to help resolve workplace conflicts in a peaceful, non-litigated manner. However, at the same time, concerns in the workplace about bullying and unequal relationships have seemed to discourage face-to-face mediation. Can these two trends be reconciled? It’s important to address these issues.
Many workplace conflicts escalate into major disputes, involving organizational time, money and emotional energy. Some of them turn into legal disputes or administrative decision-making. There may be claims of sexual harassment or bullying (where laws have already been approved to discourage this behavior). Some of these require investigations which often leave the organization unclear as to what actually occurred, or major splits occur within a department or division during and after the investigation is completed.
First: Workplace Coaching (with EAPs or others)
The approach that we recommend is to start with coaching. If possible, start with coaching before any formal action or disciplinary action has been taken. This gives the opportunity to focus on the future, which is one of our strongest recommendations overall. We have developed a structured coaching method called New Ways for Work: Personal Skills for Productive Relationships. It’s designed to teach basic conflict resolution tools that are increasingly lacking in today’s blame-filled world.
This coaching method can be done in three sessions, by an EAP, a management coach or an outside therapist or coach. The focus of the coaching is four essential skills: flexible thinking, managed emotions, moderate behavior and checking yourself. Each of these skills are included in a New Ways Workbook which includes several simple tools and practice exercises. The simplicity of this method and the positive emphasis on future problem-solving helps make it an appealing process and we have had many people say they appreciate these skills for all areas of their lives.
By learning self-management skills in a coaching setting, many of the problem behaviors may be reduced or eliminated. There is no need for defensiveness, so employees or managers are more open to learning. And its short term, so that people don’t feel burdened or punished, which can block helpful learning. One or more parties to a dispute can be expected (required?) to learn these skills.
Second: Determine if There is Progress
After one or more parties to a dispute have gone through this coaching, someone can assess how seriously it has been taken. This could be a manager, H.R. or an outside consultant or mediator. Each individual can state what he or she is working on regarding their own self-management skills. “I’m working on using more flexible thinking, so that I can see more solutions to problems that may come up.” Or: “I’m working on managing my emotions better during a disagreement.”
These types of statements indicate that progress can be made if the parties in conflict could sit down together. You don’t want to have another bullying session. Instead, if those in the dispute can talk and listen to each other, while openly taking responsibility for his or her own behavior management, then they may be able to move forward and resolve or reduce the workplace conflicts.
Of course, readiness for mediation should be determined after some coaching sessions have occurred. This is a common mistake: asking two people in conflict to sit down and talk it out without learning any tools for doing that first. The emphasis has to be on learning skills, which can then be used to solve problems.
Once it has been determined that a mediation is going to occur, the parties to the conflict can be told to bring questions and proposals to the mediation. These are skills that they can learn in New Ways for Work, which can be used to make the mediation more productive. When conflicts are particularly tense, this approach can help all parties stay focused on what to do in the future, based on their proposals. When people come in cold to a mediation, there is a high risk of it turning into blaming each other. So we keep the focus on the future and on proposals and what to do going forward.
This future-focused, proposal-focused approach has kept many conflicts from suddenly flaring up again. No one has to be defensive, because the future hasn’t happened yet.
Another aspect of successful mediation of workplace disputes is to minimize or eliminate storytelling—talking about how awful the other person has been in the past. This tends to plunge the parties back into the dispute, and tempers can easily flare up.
It will be important to use a mediator who can keep this structure and discourage focusing on the past too much. Ideally, the mediator will be familiar with the skills taught in the New Ways for Work coaching, so that they can be reinforced and used to help resolve the issues.
This is a brief look at how a workplace mediation can be structured for success. Rather than ignoring a conflict or spontaneously firing one or both people, this approach can be used to contain the conflict and teach some skills at the same time. This gives people a chance to act responsibly, which is essential if they are going to continue their working relationship. With the coaching, they will also learn new skills to help them in other future disputes. With the mediation, they can hopefully salvage the positive in their relationship while minimizing the negative. Too quickly these days, we are afraid to take the time to learn the skills to then resolve disputes. This approach provides one way of doing that.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.
L. Georgi DiStefano is a best-selling author, international speaker, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and the recipient the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers San Diego chapter. She has extensive experience in the management of substance abuse programs and employee assistance programs, as well as workplace conflict resolution.