One of the sub-categories of mediation which I do is workplace conflict resolution mediation, usually involving directors, officers, and/or executives. Conflict resolution mediation is different from mediation of legal disputes because normally, in conflict resolution mediation, the goal is to achieve consensus on a plan to resolve the conflict which allows the participants to continue working together, whereas in legal dispute mediation, the goal is usually to come to an arrangement which allows the parties to never have to deal with each other again. Another important difference between legal dispute mediation and conflict resolution mediation is that at the end of a successful legal dispute mediation, there will be a settlement agreement. At the end of a successful conflict resolution mediation, however, there will usually not be any type of settlement document. If there is a document, it will normally focus on goals rather than promises.
I have heard numerous catchwords and phrases used when discussing conflict resolution mediation, including:
The Three C’s: Capitulation, Compromise, and Collaboration
The Four A’s: Acknowledge, Accept, Appreciate, and Apologize
The Four C’s: Commitment, Communication, Conflict Resolution, and Camaraderie
The ABC triangle: Attitudes of actors involved, their Behavior, and the Contradiction
The Three Pillars: Conflict (Theory), Communication (Practices), and (Paths to) Resolution
The Five Pillars: Assigning Motivation; Problem from Person; Interest and Position; Loaded and Toxic Language; and Intent versus Impact
The Five Steps: Define the source of the conflict; Look beyond the incident; Request solutions; Identify solutions both disputants can support; and Agreement.
I have no criticism of any of these descriptions. They all use words and phrases which describe the goals of conflict resolution. In my opinion, however, such catchwords and catch phrases are not needed in order to resolve a workplace conflict. Sometimes participants (and mediators) become so fixated on the catchwords and phrases, that they have difficulty listening and focusing on a plan for resolution.
My approach is more down to earth, and more fluid than some of the approaches I have heard of. I start by finding out what the basic issues are and what the desired outcome is. This usually comes from a conversation with whoever made the initial contact with me. If someone not personally involved in the conflict made the initial contact with me, I generally speak with some of the people to the conflict on the telephone prior to the conflict resolution meeting, just to obtain an idea regarding what the perceived problem is, to assure that the necessary individuals will attend, and to make sure the location for the mediation is appropriate. Having the necessary parties present at the mediation is of course key. While people can of course attend via videoconference, for this type of mediation I really prefer all participants to be present in person. The location of the mediation is also important. The location needs to be neutral, at a location which is fairly equidistant from where all participants work or live, and which has adequate spaces so people can be separated and then brought together.
Depending on the situation, I may request the participants provide me with some documents, but I do not request written briefs. For example, I might request bylaws, rules, procedures, handbooks, job descriptions, and/or organizational charts. I try to avoid getting numerous emails, but if there are a couple emails, memos, or letters which seem to be at the heart of the conflict, I will ask for those.
At the conflict resolution mediation, I usually talk to all the participants together or in a couple groups and let them know how I envision the day proceeding. During this phase, I attempt to alleviate any concerns anyone has and make it clear that I am not on anyone’s side. This is especially important if one of the people involved in the conflict is the person who contacted me. In that situation, I assure the participants that I have no prior history with the contacting party.
The next phase involves having an informal, one-on-one meeting with each of the participants individually. This usually involves going back and talking to some participants a second, third, or even fourth time. During this phase, I listen to the participants. (Surprisingly, “listen” is not one of the catchwords I found relating to conflict resolution mediation, although “communication” is mentioned in a couple of the catch phrases.) I get to the roots of the conflict. I talk with the participants regarding possible ways to resolve the conflict, including exploring any solutions they propose, and discussing what they might be willing to do toward resolving the conflict. Sometimes one or more of the participants will demand an apology from one or more of the other participants. Although an apology can be conducive to resolving some conflicts, I normally discourage insisting on apologies, as this can result in escalating the conflict rather than resolving it. I discourage assigning blame for anything which has happened. The goal is to look forward, not backward. I also don’t want any of the participants to feel like they are the only ones who are capitulating. The goal is to get all the participants on board with the plan for resolution. This is difficult if someone feels they are the only one making concessions, or that they are making more concessions than other participants are making.
I almost always spend some time discussing communication styles, since I find that many workplace conflicts arise from a difference in communication styles. Some people have a more direct style of communicating, which can be off-putting or even intimidating to others. Other people have such an indirect style of communicating that it is difficult for others to understand what they are really saying. (Generally, men have a more direct communication style and women have a more indirect communication style, but there are of course exceptions.) There are many nuances in communication styles which can affect how effectively people interact in the workplace.
Once I believe we have laid out the plan for a resolution of the conflict, I will bring everyone back together in the same room. During this phase, I will describe to the participants what I see as the main issues to be resolved, and make sure they agree. I will also describe the changes which at least some of the participants have already agreed to make. If there are any participants who are still not on board with the plan, I will allow them to explain to the group the reasons for their hesitancy, and this will hopefully lead to a productive discussion. If there are a large number of participants, it may not be possible to obtain agreement from everyone. Usually, however, if the majority of the participants agree to a plan for resolution, the remaining participants will come on board.
While the above describes how I generally proceed with a conflict resolution mediation, it is not a “one-size-fits-all” process. Depending on the nature of the conflict, and the individuals involved, the approach may need to be altered to some degree.
Depending on the situation, a conflict resolution mediation may take only one day, or one day plus follow-up phone calls or videoconferences, or may require multiple days. When multiple days are required, this could be consecutive days, or it could be days spread out over some period of time to allow the participants to work toward implementing the conflict resolution plan between meetings.
Conflict resolution mediation can be instrumental in resolving conflicts so the workplace or other enterprise runs more efficiently and productively, and the participants involved are happier in their personal roles than they were before the mediation.
Need more information?
GAYLE ESKRIDGE may be contacted by phone (310/303-3951 or 916/898-1469), or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please visit my website at www.eskridgelaw.net.
This article does not constitute the provision of legal advice, and does not by itself create an attorney-client relationship with Gayle Eskridge.