Conflict mediation is an important skill in a manager's strategic toolkit
“My job is dealing with angry CFOs [Chief Operating Officers],” says Linda*, a director at a major investment bank.
Many of the stories I hear from my clients and students involve some form of work-related conflict. A client or boss acts aggressively or irrationally. Colleagues hide information or delay important projects. An employee doesn’t deliver and invents excuses.
A common reaction to conflict is deeming the offender an idiot and assuming that the conflict is irreparable. This results in either distancing or a toxic environment where conflict (and suffering) is perpetuated.
Conflict, however, often doesn’t stem from bad intentions but rather from miscommunication of interests and concerns of the parties involved. The client is demanding because he doesn’t understand the scope and timeline of the services. The difficult boss is stressed out because he or she is managing multiple priorities and is worried about an upcoming visit from the executive team. Colleagues hide information because they are worried about their job security during a period of layoffs. The employee invents excuses because they are ashamed to admit that they didn’t understand the task at hand.
Trying to make sense of so many conflicts and approach them in a structured manner, I signed up for a weeklong conflict mediation (note: not meditation!) course.
Mediation is often used as a means of avoiding costly litigation in situations such as divorce, disagreements between neighbors, and commercial and labor disputes. The mediator acts as a neutral party who facilitates a conversation between the two sides, highlighting interests and concerns and helping them move on and negotiate solutions that are satisfactory for both sides.
Going through numerous conflict situations provided several important lessons for all of us who work with people on a daily basis:
The Importance of Neutrality: The Mediator is Not a Lawyer Nor A Judge
In negotiation training, they will tell you to act like a lawyer and not as a judge: you should seek the best possible deal for your side rather than strive for fairness. Otherwise, you may end up leaving a lot on the table. As a mediator, you can’t be either. You mustn’t engage in fact-finding or negotiating (lawyer) nor try to drive the discussion towards the most equitable solution to the problem (judge).
During several of the more controversial mediations involving allegations of fraud or sexual harassment, I found myself drawn to, and secretly rooting for, one of the parties. It was either because I could relate to their plea or because they had a more pleasant disposition.
Through subsequent discussions, I would discover that the accuser only shared part of the story, the accused regretted their actions and wanted to resolve the conflict amicably, the nice person merely had better communication skills and the difficult person was just trying to gain respect or save face.
Conflict situations are never black and white. This is why it’s so important for the mediator to remain neutral and to create a safe space where the two sides can communicate effectively.
Asking Good Questions is a Crucial Skill for a Mediator
The best way to figure out the interests and concerns of the parties involved is by asking good questions. Open-ended questions that start with “what” and “how” instead of “why” are essential.
Asking “How do you see the situation?” or “Can you tell me more?” or “What is most important to you? Is there anything else?” helps clarify the issues and lets the person better explain his or her context. You can then restate the key points to make sure both sides understood them: “It sounds like your concern is...” or “You’d like to receive... from the other party... is this correct?”
It’s easy to fall into interrogation mode because we have this internal need to get to the bottom of who is right or wrong. But as I mentioned before, this is not the role of the mediator. Asking “Why are you frustrated?” or “Why do you believe you’re right?” or other questions that are too specific can make the person feel cornered and therefore aggravate the conflict.
Fight Off the Urge to Problem-Solve
Many of us who have spent time in the corporate world are very skilled at solving problems. In fact, it’s often what we are paid to do in our daily jobs! Give us a hairy issue. We will go find some information, mobilize resources, make a plan and voila! problem is solved and we can move on to the next issue.
When you are a problem-solver, it is really frustrating to see someone stuck in a seemingly simple situation that could be resolved with a quick fix. Yet, we need to have humility and maturity to understand that if it were indeed so easy, people would have resolved it already.
For the resolution to be sustainable, both parties need to take ownership of the problem and develop their own solutions. Otherwise, it’s easy for them to blame the mediator if something goes wrong in the future.
Instead of giving her opinion, the mediator should help the parties brainstorm new ideas. For example, in one conflict the owners of a hotel complained about the noise emanating from the adjacent bar and disturbing its clients. Once both sides expressed their interests and concerns, the challenge of the mediator was to think of questions that will help them find ways to collaborate instead of focusing on past grievances. How do their business models work and are there overlaps? What resources (and experts) could help them? Are there other examples of how similar situations were resolved? These were just some of the questions presented.
Conflicts are frustrating but aren’t impossible to resolve. My weeklong immersion in conflict left me quite optimistic. Whether you are dealing with interdepartmental politics, sitting on a board of directors, or managing a team with different styles and personalities, I hope that the lessons above can help you approach these situations more effectively.
*The name was altered to maintain confidentiality