Mediation Techniques to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable. Employees, supervisors, and co-workers must manage the distribution of limited resources, passionate individuals who may not be aligned on their goals, and myriad personalities and conflict styles that do not mesh easily. To get anything done, it is essential to have the skills to resolve conflict in the workplace.

Mediators work with employees and managers every day to resolve conflict in the workplace. We encourage those who are in dispute to welcome a third party neutral to rebuild communication, trust, and capacity for resolving disputes moving forward.

However, not every conflict in the workplace requires the help of a mediator. Utilizing some basic mediation techniques, you can more effectively navigate difficult conversations and resolve conflict in the workplace. The next time you have a conflict in the workplace, consider these three steps:

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1) Step back

When parties first walk into a mediation, they often feel entrenched in the details of their conflict. This results in a lot of “he said, she said” conversation, with everyone trying to prove that they are in the right. This focus on the past and “winning” the dispute often keeps parties from having a more productive conversation, with each side caught up in the details of their conflict.

As mediators, we help parties view their conflict differently. We challenge their assumptions about the situation, and we ask them to think about the other side’s perspective. The goal is to have the parties step back and refocus their energy on solving the dispute at hand, not “fixing” the other person.

When resolving conflict in the workplace, work to separate the person you disagree with from the problem you are trying to solve. Ask yourself: could I be wrong about their intentions? Is there something I might not understand about their perspective?

This is especially important in emotional moments – when you feel angry, sad, or frustrated with the other person. Give yourself a moment to step away from the conversation, step back from the conflict, and refocus your energy towards resolution.

2) Reframe the conversation

For parties entrenched in conflict, changing the course of their conversation can be difficult. Even if both parties want to resolve the dispute, they can be hesitant to be the first one to reach out. Mediators make this process easier by providing both parties with a platform and equal opportunity to change the way they communicate.

Even if you have taken time to step back and refocus, the other person might still feel entrenched in the conflict. Clearly state your desire to work together to address the issue at hand, and let them know that you are going to work to have a better conversation. Your goal is to make the other side your partner in resolution rather than continually viewing each other as “the other side.”

Ask them: can we define what the issue at hand is? What can help us resolve this issue? What do you need from me to have more effective, productive conversations? What can we do together to improve our working relationship?

3) Focus on interests

Much of a mediator’s work is focused on identifying interests – the “why” behind parties’ actions, demands, and goals in the mediation. Focusing on interests as opposed to positions expands the possibilities for resolution. Interests help parties get the heart of what they really want, and it shifts the direction of the conversation towards productively seeking resolution together.

When working to resolve conflict in the workplace, share your interests clearly with the other person. Just as importantly, ask the other person questions to learn more about their interests. If conflict escalates or the other side becomes emotional, demonstrate that you are dedicated to better understanding them by restating what you know about their interests so far.

If you find that a specific conflict in the workplace is not resolved through these steps, consider bringing in a mediator to serve as a third party neutral. Over 90% of workplace and employment mediations result in a resolution, leading to strengthened working relationships, improved morale, and increased productivity.

For most conflicts, though, these basic steps will help to de-escalate rising conflict. Changing your approach and showing commitment to improving your working relationship can have a big impact on the course of a dispute. If you take time to step back, refocus your conversation to working as a team, and focus on understanding and sharing one another’s interests, you can resolve conflict in your workplace.

To learn more about resolving conflict in your workplace, contact Chuck Doran, Executive Director, at cdoran@mwi.org or 617-895-4026.

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