Ditch your formal processes and choose mediation

Having been involved in a number of mediations in the work place as part of a larger mediation scheme I have noticed that there appears to be patterns in behaviour that are followed even with different staff involved in the session

Initially the observations are straight forward. The body language employed by each party generally does not require a psychology degree to work out. Staff will move their chair further away from the other party, fold their arms, avoid eye contact etc. The use of an uninterrupted opening statement from each party gives a momentary reprieve from the tension as each party is respectively required only to listen. Here is another interesting area. Each party is required to listen but only they fully know what they have chosen to hear. Thus as the mediator you are intent on gauging the reaction and impact to every aspect of the statement on the other person, analysing which statement have the real impact.

Following this there is the impact time as each party tries to digest what has been said. Bear in mind that there are cases where the parties may well not have spoken for several weeks and the build up of the tension would be considerable. Then comes the explosions as each part fires out with what they really wanted to put forward in the opening statement and now feel brave enough to do so. The reaction of each party to this is always difficult to gauge, some will want to run from the room (and do!) others will respond with counter argument and this section is the most emotive part of the session where the real feelings of anger, resentment and turmoil come out. This is where you can really learn to mediate dangerously, picking your key moments to intervene with the crucial questions, challenging each party to listen to the needs  and expressed emotion of the other party.

This is closely followed by a period of calm. It is almost impossible to stay highly emotive for a prolonged period of time, particularly where that emotion is anger. It uses up a lot of energy being angry with someone and each party quickly realises that this is not a sustainable way of engaging with the other party.

The next stage I feel is also dangerous for the mediator, a period of avoidance. Very often parties will effectively (and jointly) move away from the subject of their joint tension and conflict towards an area of work that they are both familiar and comfortable with talking about. I do not feel this is necessarily an issue to move to this type of dialogue as it opens up communication between parties and shows them that they are able to converse and interact in an acceptable way despite the conflict that exists between them and this is useful in bringing parties towards an agreement. The danger in this section is that the parties perceive this as the resolution to the conflict when in fact they are far and away from resolving the issue. The key for the mediator here is to know when to redirect the conversation back to the conflict in question. This could be done with a simple yet effective question such as ‘Do we feel that the issues are now resolved’ or perhaps ‘how useful do you feel the conversation is in helping you resolve the conflict?’ thus returning the parties back to the issue in question.

In some sessions I have been involved with I have found that the return to the conflict question at this point is much more structure and manageable, because the parties have re-established rapport and trust when discussing other points that they may have been in agreement about. They are much more conducive to problem solving and moving towards a final agreement at this point.

Having been a mediator for approximately 6 years I still feel that this is the most effective way to resolve work place conflict. When people come to me now to say do you think this issue could be resolved via mediation I instinctively say yes, any issue can be resolved using this process. The question really should be about whether we ever need formal processes to resolve conflict and could all issues not be directed through this route first.

Thanks for reading, I would be really interested in your views on mediation or any of the other articles on this page.


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