Workplace Conflict Resolution 101
If you want to bring an end to long-standing conflict, you have to be prepared to compromise.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Very few workplaces are conflict free. Everyone is different in some way — the way we think, act, and react is often different to that of others. Our perceptions of things that are said can vary from not only what is said but the intention of what is being said. Communication breakdowns because of this are very common.
I am often asked to assist in mediating between two employees who have been experiencing conflict. Often, it has been an ongoing problem for a while so that the problem, whatever it was originally, is forgotten and it is just two people who can’t ‘get on’. The word 'personality clash' is then used to describe what is actually a communication clash.
As an external consultant, the skills I use to assist in resolving this tension and conflict are skills that you can learn. Here are some quick tips:
Know your role
The role of a mediator is not to solve the problem (tempting as it might be!). The role of the mediator is to help the people involved resolve the conflict, in a collaborative way, themselves.
Find out as much detail about the issue and the people involved as you can before attempting to mediate. Talk to both people separately, getting an idea of their major concerns, what they are prepared to compromise on, what, if anything, they can see from the other person’s perspective. And plan, as far as possible, how the meeting will go.
This is particularly important if you know and work with both parties — you might know one more than the other, work more closely with one than the other. One person may be a senior manager and the other a junior employee so a perceived power imbalance, if you too, are a senior manager, can lead to perceived impartiality. Perceptions of lack of impartiality will cause a mediation to fail before it even starts.
Agree ground rules, or what I call 'terms of engagement'
When you bring both parties together, set and agree ground rules, including:
- The role of the mediator is not to dictate solutions, but to encourage the parties to find their own
- Confidentiality – keep the matters discussed between the parties, subject to the mediator discussing the resolution with HR or management
- One person to speak at a time — no interruptions
- Each person is to be truthful about their concerns and willingness to find resolution
- Active listening — each party is to listen to what the other person is saying
- Don’t use pronouns ('he', 'she'). Use each other’s names at all times
- If voices are raised the mediator will ask the person speaking to stop, take a deep breath and speak calmly
- Avoid blaming language
Finding a solution
Finding a solution can be easy when two people talk calmly together, but is often not. Each party will have their own view of events and the relationship breakdown. When listening, ask questions to find common ground. The mediator must give each person the chance to speak openly and honestly, and without judgement, while at the same time ensuring that both parties avoid blame and accusations, and accept responsibility for their part in the problem. Find out if they can see the issue from the other person’s perspective. After they have both spoken find out what they can agree on. There might be many things, there may be few. But if it is looking like few, try and find one. Even if it is both that they enjoy working for the organisation, that is a good place to start. You’ll be surprised once one piece of common ground is found how it can lead to others.
Compromise is essential — especially when it seems they are poles apart. The trick is to bring their perceptions closer together.
Remember people are more likely to stick to a resolution to a problem if they come up with the solution themselves. A mediation conducted well will also rebuild trust between the parties and their trust in the organisation, having been supported in this way.
Once agreement on a way forward is reached, it is vital that you check in with both parties to make sure it is working and that both are sticking to their side of the bargain.