How bad does it have to be to make it worth calling a mediator? When to mediate

https://conflictinsights.co.uk/2022/07/how-bad-does-it-have-to-be-to-make-it-worth-calling-a-mediator-when-to-mediate/

Many of us often face challenging and difficult situations.  We usually manage those as well as we can.  Most workplace tensions are not managed with the assistance of an external third party. So, how bad does a situation have to be to justify bringing in an external facilitator or mediator to help?  When is the situation officially a ‘conflict’?  

Workplace conflict is everywhere

ACAS estimate that workplace conflict costs British businesses just under £30bn a year.  That breaks down to roughly £1000 cost per employee.  These figures include the tangible costs, such as legal fees and the cost of management time spent. They also include other costs that may not be immediately apparent, such as lost productivity and retention/recruitment costs – 800,000 people of the 10 million involved in a workplace conflict will leave the organisation within years (resignations/dismissals).

The overt and the covert

‘Conflicts’ include issues that have escalated to a very visible dispute.  But they also include situations where latent conflict issues may not yet have overtly surfaced, but are present, bubbling away under the surface. The manager may be aware that there are issues that need to be addressed between two members of their team, but they are, perhaps, hoping that the issues will sort themselves out without them needing to be involved.

They usually don’t go away on their own.

When is it time to try mediation?

Here are some points to help consider when to mediate:

1. When the disagreement is starting to get in the way of your team working well and you need to rebuild the relationship

Conflict can be constructive – a well-functioning team needs to be able to air different perspectives and views to avoid group think. But we need teams that are ‘conflict competent’ to manage those discussions constructively. Mediation is particularly valuable to restore relationships – so when an ongoing relationship between yourself and the others is crucial, it can really help.

2. You’ve already had a go at resolving things informally, directly

You’ve raised that there is an issue and tried to get it resolved

But things are still difficult and it’s getting in the way of getting the job done.  This would be a good time to step it up – it’s time to get a bit more help.

3. Before the tensions escalate – and the costs

It is generally considered better to start mediation as soon as possible during the disagreement.  ACAS advice that the earlier the disagreement is dealt with, the less chance there is of things getting worse.

Prompt mediation will help reduce the amount of time and money spent on the dispute and open a dialogue with the other party before they become too fixed in their position.

It’s worth noting that some lawyers consider that bringing in mediation later in the conflict, once parties have had a chance to receive legal advice is preferable. Thisis so that they go into the discussions better informed.

4. The people involved want to resolve the issues quickly and discreetly

If the people involved want to resolve the situation but need some facilitation to do that, the situation is ripe for mediation. There are lots of benefits to this approach over other dispute resolution approaches – including speed, privacy and control. 

What is mediation anyway?

Mediation is a quick way to resolve disagreement at work and is:

  • Less formal
  • Flexible
  • Voluntary
  • Confidential 

Conclusion

If workplace tensions are getting in the way of your team delivering what they need to do – and there have already been efforts to resolve the issues that haven’t worked – then it may be time to consider mediation.  If this describes your situation, click here to arrange an informal, no-obligation call with Pip to consider whether mediation could help.

Mediation: When to Shuttle

https://conflictinsights.co.uk/2022/05/mediation-when-to-shuttle/

If you’re keen to mediate but aren’t sure about having a face to face meeting, then you may be wondering what your options are.  You may have already heard of shuttle mediation.  Here is the low-down on the option of shuttle mediation.

What is shuttle?

Shuttle mediation is when your mediator meets each of the parties separately to discuss their issues and needs with them. The mediator will discuss what each side would like to raise and what requests they would like to make of the other side/s.  The big difference between shuttle and other mediation is that there isn’t a joint meeting for all the parties together.

Is that less effective?

Maybe a joint meeting isn’t going to be helpful

Not necessarily.  It depends.  It’s true that for many mediators there is a magic in that joint meeting.  It gives each of the parties involved in the dispute a chance to hear directly from each other about what the issues are that matter, what impact the conflict has had on them, and what they want to be different in the future.  You do still cover those points in a shuttle.  But it can be incredibly powerful to hear that directly from the other party themselves. There can often be a very tangible shift in the room once the parties have heard from each other.  It can be transformational in the parties’ understanding of the dispute.

But it doesn’t always work like that.  And there may be numerous reasons why it could be unhelpful to have the parties in the room together.  Maybe the power imbalance is very pronounced.  It may be too intense for one or all parties.  Maybe there is a concern whether the physical or psychological safety of the parties can be managed by the mediator.

It’s worth remembering that a joint session isn’t the only way to progress your mediation to an agreement.

Here are my top three reasons why you could consider a shuttle mediation approach:

  • Less pressure

You can progress your mediation in a way that is less confrontational, less challenging.  This could mean the difference between completing your mediation and not.  S

Shuttle mediation gives parties a chance to manage the pace themselves
  • More space to think and catch your breath

Shuttle is conducted in stages and the mediator alternates between private meetings with each of the parties.  While the mediator is not with the party, they have a chance for reflection and/or rest – mediation can be a draining experience.

  • Still scope to get an agreement

The mediator will still provide the parties with the space and support to resolve the issues that are in dispute.  

When wouldn’t you shuttle?

If you have a workplace conflict with parties who work together, want to resolve their dispute with a shuttle mediation and are unwilling to conduct a joint meeting together… then I would have some reservations.  If the objective for the mediation is to resolve the working relationship, then they are almost certainly going to need to be comfortable being in the same room with each other. But there may be other support that could help the parties work through their issues.

Top Tips for Conflict in the Festive Season

https://conflictinsights.co.uk/2021/12/top-5-tips-for-conflict-in-the-festive-season/

‘Tis the season to be jolly.  But for many of us, it’s also a time when we experience conflict during those much-anticipated gatherings with our loved ones.  That conflict may be very visible – or it could be bubbling under the surface.  It’s still conflict.  And it can still feel stressful, uncomfortable and even upsetting.

Here is a collection of my favourite conflict management and resolution tips.  Some have been picked up during mediation, others from working in conflict hotpots across the globe and others from simply living and working in situations where conflicts arise.  

Take heart – conflict is inevitable.

Conflicts are part of life.  In any discussion where you have multiple views, perspectives, ideas expressed, there’s almost certainly going to be a conflict between them.  This is a good thing because it makes our conversations richer and more interesting.  How dull would it be if there were only one way of looking at an issue?  See here for our previous post on why we really need some conflict, handled well.

The challenge is to embrace those differences, and continue the conversation.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

Give those involved a good listening to.  Hear them out.  

Samaritans use the Listening Wheel as a prompt to utilise all elements of active listening: asking open questions; reflecting; reacting clarifying; summarising; using short words of encouragement.  For more on learning to listen like a Samaritan, see this wonderful book.

And ask questions in the spirit of friendly curiosity

Find out why they are saying what they’re saying.  What do they need to happen and why is that?  What interests or needs do they have?

If you find yourselves on opposite sides of an argument or issue, it’s all the more important to show curiosity. What has led them to reach the conclusions that they have done? A useful 1 minute summary is here.

Empathise.

And encourage those involved to put themselves into the other persons’ shoes.  Mediators will sometimes ask parties think through the issues from the perspective of the other party. As Gerry O’Sullivan says, “it’s important to ask the party to think like the other party with that other party’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, rather than thinking about what they would have done in those circumstances.” It is a very powerful way to ease the antagonism/competition we often find in conflicts.

Try a different perspective.

To help maintain a sense of perspective when emotions start to run high, we can practise ‘distanced self-talk’, following the example of Marcus Aurelius.  If that doesn’t work for you, there are other techniques to support us to manage our emotions.  It gets harder to do that in a state of stress.  But that’s when you really need them. Here’s a bit more on managing emotions.

You may agree to disagree.

You may not reach an agreement or shared perspective on an issue. That’s ok. You can disagree on the substance without breaking the relationship. Here’s how:

  1. Actively acknowledge the other’s perspective using terms such as ‘I understand that…,’; ‘I see your point’; or ‘What I think you are saying is…’
  2. Affirm the other person’s views by highlighting areas of agreement, no matter how small or obvious. For example, say ‘I agree that…’ or ‘You’re right about…’
  3. Hedge your claims: say ‘I think it’s possible’ rather than ‘This will happen because…’ (Note: you can soften your own beliefs, but don’t minimise values! Avoid words such as ‘just’, ‘simply’ or ‘only’.)
  4. Phrase your arguments in positive rather than negative terms. Say ‘I think it’s helpful to maintain a social distance’ rather than ‘You should not be socialising right now.’
  5. Share your personal experiences – especially involving vulnerability – and this will encourage mutual respect. In contrast, reciting explanations or facts you’ve learned can sound argumentative and condescending.

Focus on the future

Many conflicts have several different dimensions – there will be the trigger event or comment.  But there are often many events, comments and hurts in the past that have contributed to the current situation.  Especially in family settings, the slights and hurts can last a generation.  Getting stuck in a tit-for-tat exchange of who did what to whom is unlikely to set the scene for a more positive relationship in the future.  It may be necessary to share your feelings and understand the impact of past actions.  But for the relationship to move on, it’s helpful to refocus on we want from the relationship in the future.

The Art of Disagreement: How to disagree at work without harming relationships

https://conflictinsights.co.uk/2021/10/the-art-of-disagreement-how-to-disagree-at-work-without-harming-relationships/

We can’t always agree. And how we disagree makes all the difference to our working relationships.

Disagreeing with a friend recently felt a bit like this

I disagreed with a friend on an issue recently. We had differing perspectives, both valid. It really felt uncomfortable because it was hard to agree to disagree with them – it felt as though they needed me to accept that they were “right”. I didn’t see it like that. And I’d have felt so much comfortable in the discussion, if we’d been able to reflect on our different perspectives without the need to determine who’s right and who’s wrong.

It struck me that there really is an art to disagreeing with someone. That applies in personal relationships with friends and family, as well at work.

It’s good to disagree, and disagree well

In Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed celebrates teams where areas of disagreement and differing perspectives are aired. Have you ever worked in a team like this? I have, but only once in my career. Team discussions sometimes felt pretty uncomfortable. For leaders, it can certainly be hard work to chair and facilitate those discussion. But the alternative – Syed’s teams of clones – are often the kiss of death for creativity and innovation.

Done well, airing disagreements can maximise team creativity and engagement. Handled badly, it can be toxic. 

You can’t avoid disagreements

So, how can we disagree well?

5 top tips for respectful disagreements:

  1. Remember disagreement is healthy and inevitable – you can avoid disagreeing with others, by not saying anything… or agreeing with everything they say. But that comes at a high cost to your authenticity. And you’re missing an opportunity to bounce ideas around – why wouldn’t sharing another perspective enrich the discussion?
We want to understand what’s underneath the surface
  • Listen actively to understand their view (‘seek first to understand’) and create space for dialogue – in mediation we talk about understanding what’s going on under the surface of the position statements that parties can find themselves stuck in. In that context, we want to understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ that is being described. That allows for more scope to find win-win solutions. In any discussion involving differing perspectives, there is real value in showing a sense of curiosity about why the other person has the perspective that they do. Bonus top tip: asking “why do you think that?” can come across as aggressive and is unlikely to open up the space for dialogue; try “could you say a bit more about what’s led you to think that?”).
  • Acknowledge/Reflect the other perspective – clearly valuing the other perspective can often be reassuring for the other party in the discussion. And you could help them feel more comfortable to discuss, getting out of the fight or flight mode they may find themselves in. It also allows the conversation to move forward, past the initial position statements and gets to the ‘why?’. Try: “this sounds like an important issue to you because of the impact that it is having on the team’s productivity.”
  • Identifying areas of agreement and separating those from the disagreements – this tip helps you organise and sort the issues that may be involved. It gives you a chance to reinforce the sense that you are perhaps on the same team, or that you share a common overall objective. Try: “it sounds like we agree that the issue is how to grow our customer base. We have different ideas about how to communicate with potential clients. Is that right?”
  • Use respectful language – it may seem obvious but it’s easy to slip into unhelpful language, especially if you’re finding the conversation stressful. Declaring “you’re wrong!” may not help progress the conversation forward; try instead “that’s interesting. Could you talk me through your thinking on this?”. 

Yes, but here’s another bonus tip:

  • Yes, but…” is fatal. I’d suggest using the word “but” sparingly because it’s commonly perceived as negating the preceding statement (“I like you but….”). Try: “yes, and…” instead.

Clarify your objective before you start

And finally, consider your objective – is it to be right and win the argument? OK – the risk is that you could achieve that at the cost of the relationship. If the relationship matters, consider a different approach.

Get in touch if you’d like to turn around disagreements in your team and maximise the opportunities for innovation and creativity.

Uncomfortable conversations: Love them or hate them?

https://conflictinsights.co.uk/2021/09/uncomfortable-conversations-love-them-or-hate-them/

Who relishes a conversation that feels uncomfortable?  Alesha Dixon commented in an interview earlier this year – “I love an uncomfortable conversation. I really do. Because I’m not afraid to learn and to be wrong.”  Her comment has really stayed with me. It’s unusual to hear someone talking about difficult discussions in such a positive way.

How do you feel when you’re out of your comfort zone?

It’s not uncommon to feel threatened – as though you’re under attack. If you feel yourself going into flight-fight mode, you wouldn’t be alone. Dan Goleman referred to the “amygdala hijack” in Emotional Intelligence: Why It can Matter More than IQ. That hijack often doesn’t bring out the best in anyone. Steve Peters has described the brain’s reaction to the hijack as a chimp.

Feeling threatened?

It’s a threat

When we perceive specific threats in a social situation, it affects our ability to interact productively. Commonly these are threats to our social standing: having our competence undermined, feeling as though we’re being micro-managed; believing a situation to be unfair. Acknowledging the stressors that trigger our threat responses is a good way to ensure that the confrontation doesn’t get the better of you.

You’re wrong!”

‘Being wrong’ is a very emotionally loaded phrase.  It can get in the way of listening to other perspectives because it’s a rare person who is able to keep practising active listening, when they feel like they are under attack.

It can be scary to admit that you might be getting something wrong – or that you just don’t know about something.  If you’re trying to do that in the middle of a conflict, then that’s really tricky.

But it’s important. You may be missing out on an opportunity. Those emotions may get in the way of hearing a different perspective – really hearing it, without that sense of threat.

Managing your emotions

Thankfully there’s a lot of advice around about managing that emotional response during difficult conversations.  Much focuses on getting your breathing under control – whether as part of mediation, or just taking some deep breaths.

“Why is Marcus so concerned about this issue?”

There’s also a classic technique of ‘distanced self-talk’ – as demonstrated by Marcus Aurelius.  There’s a shift from thinking ”why am I feeling so upset?”, which is considered immersed self-talk, to a distanced self-talk question, eg “why is Joe feeling so upset?” (if your name is Joe). 

Sometimes, getting some support from someone outside the situation can make a difference to how those discussions go. If you’d like some support to manage difficult conversations, get in touch and I might be able to help.

3 Conflict Insights: from war-zones to mediation

https://conflictinsights.co.uk/2021/01/3-conflict-insights-from-war-zones-to-mediation/

Working in Helmand or Mogadishu looks very different to working in London or Hove, where I’m now based. But conflicts often have much in common. Here are three insights from my time working in international conflict environments that are relevant to mediation, and more broadly.

Conflict and crisis can be useful.

This needs a nuance before starting – it isn’t always the case. Not for the millions of people worldwide who suffer the consequences of violent conflicts. But often, to quote Einstein, in the midst of every crisis, opportunity. 

A delay in delivery of critical farming supplies for the programme that I worked on in Helmand meant that it looked like we would miss the planting window. That could have meant a significant loss of credibility for the local government, who we worked with. Being that close to failing was useful. It opened up an opportunity to be bolder, braver and more creative as we worked in different ways and considered ideas that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We came out stronger.

I strongly believe that conflict can be an opportunity. It can lead to fresh thinking, flushing out issues and making changes that could have otherwise taken years to work through iteratively. Obviously, the challenge is having the skills to manage that conflict constructively. That’s where mediation and conflict coaching can help.

Clarity about what really matters is crucial.

Conflict can feel dramatic; the he/she/they said accounts can be very compelling. But that the drama may make it difficult to lose perspective and/or what really matters. 

The pace and pressure made it hard to prioritise when I worked in Helmand. It often felt as though everything was important, because so much really was. To focus on the core mission, my military colleagues defined their ‘main effort’. That means that, of all the actions that are taking place within a command, main effort is applied to the single one that is recognised as the most critical to success at that moment. It’s logical, if really challenging to step back and consider what is the most important objective. It’s worth it because the clarity this gives is invaluable.

Skilled mediators have an ability to flush out what really matters to the parties. It may not be the first issue presented. But it needs to be at least acknowledged and, most likely, addressed for an agreement to be reached. An external actor to a conflict has a different perspective and can help to identify what really matters to each party.

Understanding whose conflict this is – and my role.

There may be (many) more people involved in a conflict that those at its core, who ultimately have the power to reach an agreement.

I worked in Somalia on the agreements for the shape of the security sector and extent of donor support. One significant risk was that the interests of the donors and imminent timing of a big international conference would drive the agreement. But sustainability depended more on the agreements between myriad Somalia stakeholder, plus the popular support from affected communities. They were the main protagonists in the conflict.

Thinking about whose conflict is it really is also more relevant broadly. A mediator creates the space for discussion, manages the mediation process and listens out for the issues that really matter. They don’t ‘own’ the dispute, nor are they responsible for reaching an agreement. The parties are responsible. But, as in international conflicts, it can be beneficial to have that external actor present. They can provide a framework for the discussion and help the parties reach an agreement.

If you’re affected by a conflict and would like to explore your options then I’d love to talk to you.

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