Interpersonal workplace conflict can happen as we work in close proximity with others of different personalities and working styles. If you’re a manager, you may find yourself mediating a workplace conflict between people who report to you. Knowing how to mediate successfully is one of the most powerful professional communication skills you can possess.
As the cofounder of Bespoken, a coaching firm that uses practical theatre techniques as a foundation for public speaking and communication training, our clients have shown us a hundred times over that everyone has the ability to hone effective communication skills and speak with purpose in public. Communication is a muscle and just like any muscle it gets stronger the more you train it.
A workplace scenario
I once had a client (let’s call her Stacey) who was managing a small team and struggling with a conflict between two team members (let’s call them Denise and Maureen). One day Denise came to her to share that Maureen had been delegating to her every small task related to their shared responsibilities.
At first Denise didn’t think anything of it when Maureen would casually ask her to set up the board room for their upcoming client meeting, or swing by her desk to see if Denise would run out and purchase the supplies they needed for their event next week. When Denise even mildly protested Maureen would quickly become defensive, saying how busy she was and asking why Denise “couldn’t just be a team player and quickly help out?”
Eventually Denise couldn’t take it anymore and came to Stacey angry and frustrated that she couldn’t make Maureen understand how she was taking advantage of her. Maureen’s perspective was that she was doing the responsible thing by asking for help in order to ensure their projects were managed well.
By using the 4 steps below, Stacey was able to effectively diffuse the uncomfortable tension between Denise and Maureen.
How to train your mediation muscle to address workplace conflict
The Association for Conflict Resolution cites impartiality as a key component within their model of standard conduct for mediators. Yet remaining impartial doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t communicate your opinion. To effectively mediate, you’ll need to summarize the needs of both parties involved in the conflict, and share your opinion of the situation devoid of judgement.
So how can you effectively mediate and communicate neutrally?
Position everyone involved for a successful mediation.
Provide a framework that will help you stay focused through what can be a complicated and uncomfortable process.
1. Speak individually with each party
To mediate successfully, you need a clear and active goal to pursue as a mediator. Before sitting down for the “big conversation,” carve out time to talk individually with those involved. This will give them a safe space in which to share their feelings and point of view. Like any effective meeting, there needs to be a clear desired outcome. Be clear that this initial conversation is to establish their desired outcome and is a means to an end. Doing so will help veer them away from airing a laundry list of subjective grievances which is counterproductive to effective mediation.
It’s also important that those in conflict understand you may share the information they provide with the other party to aid in your pursuit of a resolution.
Employ Active Listening
Active listening skills are important at every stage in the mediation process but doubly so in this initial step. Check out this guide we put together at Bespoken for tips on active listening. Here’s the CliffsNotes version: Maintain eye contact. Do not interrupt. Visualize what’s being said. When necessary, ask questions to better understand their feelings—this will require tapping into your emotional intelligence skills.
Speaking individually will help you mine what the two parties need to regain their sense of safety and respect. At the root of almost of every misunderstanding is feeling those you’re in conflict with don’t respect your needs or value what’s important to you.
2. Include your voice
Once you have an understanding of what those involved need in order to move beyond the conflict, you’ve reached a powerful juncture in the process. Ask yourself, “What is the best way to neutrally convey everyone’s feelings on behalf of those involved?” In other words, how do those in conflict need to hear what they have not yet been able to understand or acknowledge about one another? In their book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, authors Douglass Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen call this concept the Third Story, or a version of events both sides can agree on.
Practice summarizing everyone’s stances in advance—and out loud. Rehearsing beforehand in a neutral environment will best prepare you for when you’re in the middle of mediating and the stakes are high. Ask a friend or trusted outside eye to listen to you and provide feedback. Don’t be thrown if it takes you a few times to succinctly summarize the situation. If memorizing the way you’d like to open the meeting will help you feel more in control, by all means, do so.
We often impress upon our clients at Bespoken that it’s not what you say but how you say it. Consider how the the vocal tone and body language in combination with the context of the situation influence how your message is received. For example, take the phrase, “Wait right here.” Saying “Wait right here” in a loud voice at someone while pointing toward the ground conveys feelings of anger and frustration. Yet say, “Wait right here,” while giggling and covering your mouth and suddenly the exact same combination of words invokes feelings of anticipation and suggests a surprise is coming.
What to avoid: Ascribing judgement and qualifiers
Avoid ascribing value to either side’s experience to ensure each person’s feelings are validated equally. This will require constant vigilance throughout the mediation process. For example, instead of, “Maureen, you’re taking advantage of Denise by delegating all of your administrative tasks to her,” try: “Maureen, when you delegate all of your administrative tasks to Denise it creates an imbalance of responsibilities.”
Also note whether you’re inserting unnecessary qualifiers such as “kind of,” “like,” and “maybe,” and try to eliminate them. When faced with sharing difficult information we may use these words to qualify our statements and soften the delivery, inadvertently diluting the message and undercutting our authority.
3. Meet on neutral ground
Research shows that our physical environment deeply influences our mood and propensity for open and honest conversation (or lack thereof). So pick a spot where everyone feels comfortable and safe. Don’t be afraid to get creative. Instead of the office maybe it’s your local bar, coffee shop or park.
If the mediation happens in the workplace do your best to choose a setting that isn’t the “scene of the crime.” A calm and neutral location will position everyone to communicate openly with one another.
4. Establish the ground rules and frame the objective
Start by thanking everyone for coming together and acknowledging that it’s awkward. This will set a precedent for speaking honestly.
Quickly provide an overview of how the mediation will be structured. Ask people to refrain from interrupting and to speak only when given the floor. Discourage yelling which releases adrenaline and cortisol, tightens blood vessels and sends blood pressure soaring. Establish a time limit—say you will devote the next 30 minutes or hour to the conversation. Referencing the amount of time left will help you refocus the conversation if it goes off-topic.
Ask everyone to verbalize their agreement to the desired outcome. Two willing parties who want to reach a resolution is more likely to succeed than if one or both parties are reluctant. And it turns out saying "yes" engenders feelings of goodwill and camaraderie.
Now it’s time to insert your voice and share your (well rehearsed!) assessment of how each person is feeling and why you have reached this point. Trust in the thoughtful work you’ve done to prepare for mediating and it will support you.
After mediation, what's next?
If you successfully reach an outcome everyone feels good about, congratulations on a successful mediation! A helpful next step could be scheduling individual check-ins with both parties a month down the line to ensure the decisions reached continue to be honored.
If you’re unable to attain consensus that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Feel good about the time you invested in honing a valuable communication skill that makes you a better manager. Focus on what you learned about yourself throughout the process—how are you an effective leader and how might your leadership skills improve? Consider how you can move the mediation process forward and what you might do differently. Another option is to ask someone else to take over as mediator from this point on. Chances are you’ve gained a lot of ground up to this point in the process so all it may take is a fresh perspective to bring things across the finish line.
Finally, be sure to give yourself credit for the time you’ve devoted to helping others communicate effectively and truly be heard.