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From Conflict to Cooperation

How to Mediate a Dispute

Dr. Beverly Potter
Copyright material. See notice at the end

In every office of more than one person, conflicts are inevitable. Whenever workers thinks others are interfering with pursuit of a goal, they are bound to clash. Ideally, the disputants should try to negotiate a mutually agreeable compromise; typically, however, they take the battle underground, creating a situation in which personal victory winning the point takes precedence over advancing team's larger interests.

              Workers don't air conflicts for fear that publicizing their complaints will make them look unprofessional, incompetent, insecure or petty. Conflicts per se are not a problem, because they can signal a need for change, prevent interpersonal deadlocks and create a troubleshooting climate. The problem is how to manage them. If an office squabble is mishandled, it can reduce morale and motivation and provoke more conflict.
Consider this situation:
    Collin, an urban planner, and Stacey, an administrative assistant, had a big fight over a computer. Ann, the director of the urban planning office, didn't know what had happened, but she knew she had to restore peace. She talked to Stacey, then called in Collin.
Part of their conversation went like this:
    Ann: I talked to Stacey about the big blowup yesterday. She says that you keep going into her office and taking her computer. Now what's going on here, Collin?

    Collin: Wait a minute! I'm not taking her computer. It's the office computer and I need to use it, too. We agreed to leave the computer in the conference room next to her office so we could both use it. But Stacey keeps taking it. She's not using itbut if I take it she has a fit!

    Ann: Come on, Collin, you know that Stacey has things she must type. You're a planner. You can take your typing to a clerk. Collin: I do need a computer. I do a lot of writing. You're always on Stacey's side. Well, she started the fight. She broke the agreement.

Rather than resolving the dispute, Ann's efforts undermined her relationship with Collin and laid the foundation for further conflict between Collin and Stacey. This happened because Ann violated several important principles of effective conflict management.

How To Gather Information About The Conflict

Bring disputants together:

    Although separating hostile people eliminates the risk of being caught in the middle of a verbal battle, separate conflict interviews are time-consuming and can actually create problems. Without the adversary present, disputants are likely to exaggerate or distort the issues.

    Likewise, talking to them separately makes it easier for you to be swayed by manipulative and persuasive tactics. Worse, yet, when you interview separately, the implication is that you are going to decide what action will be taken. In contract, talking to disputants in each other's presence sets the stage for their solving their own problems.

Interview all disputants:
    It is essential to interview everyone involved to find out how each disputant sees the problem. When disputants feel that they haven't been able to tell their stories fully, they are not likely to follow through on any resolution plan. Avoid questions that lead disputants into areas that you feel are problems.

    Simply find out how each person involved sees the conflict today. "What happened today?" Don't add fuel.

Maintain control:

Listening to one's adversary tends to reignite anger. Angry people often forget their manners and rudely interrupt to correct the other's version and to sway your opinion. Be prepared to control such outbursts.

    Use your authority. Communicate your authority through your manner. Whenever possible, make a formal appointment to meet with disputants in your office.

    Subtly but firmly convey the message, "I expect you to cooperate by following my instructions." This message, combined with the fact that you can enact negative consequences, is very effective.

    Set ground rules. Begin with an explicit statement of what you expect and what can be expected from you.

      "I'm going to begin by finding out about the problem. I will talk to you one at a time, about how each of you sees the problem. I'll begin with Joe and then I'll ask Sam how he sees it."
    Often this is all that is necessary. The disputants know that if they interrupt or argue, they will be breaking your explicit directive. Have the disputants tell you their stories.

    While one is talking, the other should be listeningbut not participating. If you allow disputants to talk to each other, they may start arguing.

    Use your body. Sit between the disputants so, if bickering breaks out, you can quickly lean forward to block the disputant's view of one another and redirect their remarks back to you. If necessary, you can stand up between them and restate the ground rules.

    Use gestures. The gestures you make are valuable for controlling interruptions. Always avoid pointing or shaking your finger. These gestures can antagonize. A palm-up hand movement encourages a disputant to talk to you. A palm-down hand movement can be used without turning your head or interrupting the person you're interviewing to communicate "Wait!" Or "Be quiet!" For more impact, use the palm-down gesture in conjunction with a restatement of the ground rules.

    Begin with a low level of force. Your control level should be appropriate to the situation. If you make a strong display of force by raising your voice, for example, it will be difficult to back down. As a rule of thumb, start with a gentle but firm manner

    and escalate the degree of force in your voice, words, and gestures as needed to control disputants.

Keep disputants on the topic:
    When a disputant gets sidetracked into describing other people's opinions, get him or her back on the topic with: "What is the problem as you see it?" Or interrupt and bring the disputant back by summarizing what was said about how he or she sees the problem.

    In general, maintain a here-and-now focus and stop lengthy historical accounts of previous conflicts by saying, "What's the problem today?"

    Even when there's a backlog of unresolved conflicts, it is best to focus on one problem, the most current one. Successful change is one area will encourage work toward resolving other problems.

Remain impartial:
    It is vital that you do not say or imply your opinion. Your casual remarks could lead one or both disputants to feel cornered or judged. When a disputant feels backed into a corner by both you and an adversary, you can expect a defensive reaction.

    Get specific information. The more you get down to specific behaviors, the better. Drawing erroneous conclusions can be minimized by focusing on observable behavior. What did the person do? Say? When and where did it occur?

Accept each disputant's view:
    Acceptance is the key. Question for clarification and specific information, but don't question the validity of the disputant's perceptions. It is essential that each person involved hears how the others see the problem.

    Do not agree or sympathize. Agreeing with disputants should also be avoided. When you agree with one, you implicitly disagree with the other. Expect attempts to get you to agree with them and be careful to avoid this trap. Your effectiveness as a mediator depends on your impartiality. By the same token, avoid reassuring or sympathizing. As well-meaning as your actions may be, they can be interpreted as a vote of confidence for the adversary's position.

    Don't judge. Don't be a detective, trying to determine whose story is "correct." Because you accept a person's perception of a situation doesn't mean that you personally agree with it. It is not necessary to identify reality to resolve the conflict, but it is crucial for each party to hear how the other views the problem. People make decisions and act upon their perception of the world„right or wrong. When you question or evaluate someone's story, you negate his or her perception of the dispute. And when people are judged, they tend to edit out parts of their story that make them look bad, and exaggerate aspects that make them look good.

    Another pitfall of judging is that it shifts the responsibility: you become the all-knowing monarch who will review facts and issue an edit. However, if the disputants don't like your decision, they will thwart your attempts to handle the problem, then blame you for failing to resolve the conflict.

    Encourage disputants to express feelings. To avoid looking petty or immature, disputants often attempt to cover up feelings and as a consequence fail to state the problem in its entirety. Even when disagreements are grounded in substantive issues, there is a layer of emotion that can obscure the basic conflict.

    In the dispute between Collin and Stacey, there was personal antagonism underlying the clash over the computer. Stacey was never invited to lunch with the planners and she believed that Collin was responsible for her exclusion. Once, when she timidly hinted that she would like to be included, Collin said, "You're not a planner. You're just a high-classed secretary!" Stacey resented Collin's comment and began watching his every move.

    When feelings are ignored, they can interfere with problem solving, and even when the original problem has been resolved, resentments can color future interactions.

    "Check out" each disputant's feelings. This technique is useful when there is a discrepancy between the disputant's words and the nonverbal message communicated. If Stacey sneers while saying, "I think Collin does a good job."

    A feeling check out might be,

    "I sense you have some negative feelings about Collin's work."

    A feeling check out is also helpful when one thing the disputant says contradicts something else he or she said. For example Collin might say, "I like working with Stacey," and then complain about working with her.

    A feeling check out might be,

      "Do you mean that even thought you like Stacey, there are things she does that bug you?"
Sum up often:
    It is important that everyone hear how the other side sees the problem. With each disputant, summarize what he or she said when you think you have the story,
      "So the problem „asyou see„it is . . . . "
    Agreement with your summary is the signal to begin interviewing the next person. Summarize each disputant's story before moving into mediation.
In the following example, Ann uses conflict interview techniques to find out how Stacey and Collin each view their dispute and I will act as a coach.
    Ann: Stacy and Collin, I want to find out how each of you sees the problem. I'm going to talk with you one at a time. I'll begin with Stacey, then I'll listen to Collin's story. Stacey, what is the problem as you see it? (probe)

    Stacey: Collin is just impossible! Ann: Impossible? (repeat)

    Stacey: Yes, he's selfish and inconsiderate. Like yesterday, with the computer.

    Ann: He took your computer?

      Coach: Ann that was a leading question. You put words into Stacey's mouth and it looked as if you were taking sides. Just find out how Stacey sees the problem.
    Ann: What happened with the computer? (probe)

    Stacey: I had a lot of work to do and Collin was monopolizing the computer. He had it on his desk for an hour without using it at allI timed him.

    Collin: Oh, come on!

    Ann: (raising her hand towards Collinmaintains control with hand gesture) Hold on, Collin. I'll get to you in a minute. (repeats ground rules) Go on, Stacey.

    Stacey: I asked him nicely to hurry up. After I spoke to him, he deliberately wasted time talking with Bill. I went back a second time to urge him to hurry. When I heard the two of them planning their evening drinking party (Stacey sneers at Collin), I told him he was wasting time. He had a fit.

    Ann: Do you mean he yelled at you? (checkout)

    Stacey: Yes, he told me that He was going to get his fair share. I don't have to take this! Collin and his friends just party around here while I'm trying to work. Well, I'm sick of listening to them.

    Ann: I can understand that. You're being paid to work.

      Coach: If you agree with Stacey, you'll lose your impartiality.
    Ann: So, as you see it, you needed the computer but Collin had it and wasn't using it. You asked him a couple of times to hurry. Then he insulted you. Is there anything else? (sum up)

    Stacey: Yes. I don't see why Collin is able to use this place as a social forum. Ann: I get the impression that you sometimes feel left out of the social activities. (feeling checkout)

    Stacey: well, I really wouldn't want to go anywhere with those guys. It's just that I can't stand the way they talk about it in front of me!

    Ann: Do you mean you feel it's rude and you wish he'd make his social plans outside of your hearing? (feeling checkout)

    Stacey: No, it's not that. I'm new here. I'd like to go out to lunch, too. Collin seems to think he's better than me. I just don't like his attitude.

    Ann: Do you mean you'd like to be asked along? (feeling checkout)

    Stacey: Well, yes.

    Ann: Let me see if I've got this now. As you see it, collin had the computer when you needed it and when you asked him to hurry, he was rude. Also, he often makes social plans with other people in front of you but doesn't ask you along. Is there anything else? (sum up)

    Stacey: No, that's about it.

    Ann: How do you see the problem, Collin? (probe)

    Collin: There's only one computer here for all the planner and Stacey. It's ridiculous. I do a lot of writing and I can think better with a computer. Stacey and I agreed that we'd leave the computer in the conference room, so we could both use it. Well, she didn't keep her part of the bargain. Every time I came over to use the machine, it was in her office. When I'd try to get it from her, she'd get angry and tell me she had to use it. But it would just sit there. Well, she broke the agreement, so I figured what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Yesterday I took the computerjust like she does. That's what made her so angry. When she came over to get it I just happened to be talking to Bill.

    Ann: Do you mean that since Stacy broke the agreement by taking the computer into her office you felt it was okay for you to do the same? (checkout)

    Collin: Exactly, do you expect me to compromise when she won't?

      Coach: Careful, Ann. Ignore Collin's question. It's a trap.
    Ann: Go on.

    Collin: You heard hershe timed me! She talks about wasting time when she wastes time spying on me. She tells me exactly how many minutes I'm late. She even listens in on my calls.

    Stacey: I do not!

    Ann: Stacey, we heard you side. (repeating ground rules) Go on, Collin.

    Collin: Well, I haven't been excluding her. I just don't like being around her. I like to go out with Bill and the other guys to talk about projects. Stacey doesn't know anything about that stuffshe'd be bored. Besides she's got the secretaries to hang out with.

    Ann: So as you see it, you made an agreement with Stacey about the computer. When she didn't keep the agreement to keep it in the conference room, you figured you didn't have to keep the agreement either and you took the computer. Also, Stacey often tells you when you're late. The reason you don't invite Stacey to join you at lunch is that you prefer to eat with Bill and discuss projects the two of you are working on. Is there anything else? Collin: That's it, alight!

In this example, Ann found out how Stacey and Collin each viewed the dispute while keeping her impartiality. Collin and Stacey have each heard the other's side of the story. The stage is set for mediation.

How To Mediate

Elicit suggestions:

    After you have summarized each disputant's story at the end of the information gathering phase,turn to one of the disputants and ask for a suggested resolution. "What do you suggest?"

    Often your first request will be met with, "I don't know," or "I don't see any way to resolve this." Simply restate the request for a suggestion, perhaps a bit more firmly. If you request a suggestion two or three times and don't get one, turn to the other disputants and repeat the process.

    Don't make suggestions. Disputants usually attempt to shift responsibility to you by asking for your suggestion. Sidestep this ploy by ignoring the it and firmly restating your request for a suggestion. As soon as you offer suggestions, you will be come responsible for solving the problem. Remember, people are more likely to follow through on their own suggestions.

    Push for a specific behavior change. A suggestion such as "I want him off my back!" is not workable because it is too vague. Find out what specific behavior change is being requested. Specificity makes accountability possible and exerts pressure to carry out the agreement. Everyone will know exactly what each has agreed to do. Anyone who does not follow through will look bad.

Don't evaluate suggestions:
    Sometimes disputants will offer extreme or silly suggestions. Just accept their suggestion and ignore the unreasonable aspect. If you comment on the validity of the suggestion, you will destroy your impartiality and reduce the chances of successful mediation. Leave evaluation of the suggestion to the other disputant, who won't agree to it.

    Once you get a specific suggestion, propose it to the other disputant. If the suggestion is rejected, ask for a substitute. "Then what do you suggest instead?"

    When you get an alternative suggestion, take it back to the first disputant and get his or her opinion. Continue in this back-and-forth process until the disputants arrive at an agreement.

For example:
    Ann: (to Stacey) Collin says he'll agree to leave the computer in your office as long as he can take it whenever he needs it. What do you think of that? (checking out suggestion)

    Stacey: What if I'm using it? He can't have it just any time.

    Ann: What do you suggest?

    Stacey: Well, he can have it if he tells me in advance that he needs if and for how long, but I want him to stop treating me like a social outcast! (eliciting suggestion)

    Ann: Social outcast? (repeat) What do you want him to do? (pressing for specific suggestion)

    Stacey: Well, he could at least be polite.

    Ann: Polite? What do you want him to do? (pressing for specific suggestion)

    Stacey: I'm a human being! He could at least say "Good morning" and be civil.

    Ann: Do you mean that you'd like him to be friendly when you come in in the morning? (checkout)

    Stacey: Yea. Is that too much to ask?

After Ann explored this underlying emotional dimension to the problem, "checking out" Stacey's feelings and suggestions, Collin and Stacey reached an agreement that Ann recapped as follows.
    Ann: (To Collin) You agree that Stacey can keep the computer in her office and that on the morning of days when you need it, you will make arrangements with her. (To Stacey) Stacey, you agree to let Collin take the computer at the arranged time without comment. (To Collin) Collin, you'll greet Stacey in a friendly manner in the mornings and occasionally you'll ask her to lunch with the group. (to Stacey) And Stacey, you'll stop monitoring Collin. (to both) Is that agreed?

    Both: Okay. Yes.

    Ann: I feel good about this. Just to make sure there's no confusion about what's expected, I'm going to put it down in a memo for you. I want to meet with both of you again next Friday morning to see how this plan works out.


    Clean up language. Drop judgmental and insulting remarks. For example, "Tell the fool to get off his duff and do his sales report!" should be taken to the other disputant as "Betty suggests that you fill out your sales report. What do you think of that?"

    Develop a plan. Mediation should end with a clear statement specifying what each disputant will do. Summarize the resolution and get a final agreement from all disputants. Write it down. Put the agreed upon plan in writing. Have all parties, including yourself, sign the agreement. A signed written agreement communicates, "I expect you to follow through."

    Schedule follow-up. Follow-up sessions promote success because disputants know that they will have to account for ways in which they did not adhere for their agreement. And during the follow-up meeting, disputants can re negotiated their agreement if the first one turned out to be unworkable.

    Reward small changes. Watch for and make acknowledging comments when you notice disputants acting in accordance with their action plan. It is difficult for people to change. So it is important that changesno matter how smallbe acknowledged.

Successful Mediation

A successfully resolved conflict can have ramifications that far exceed the immediate conflict. Others in the work area will get the implicit message that you expect all personnel to be responsible for solving their own problems. And they will see that the disputants have solved a conflict though a mutually agreed-upon behavior change. In short, each time you guide disputants through the process, you are actually conducting a training session. If you consistently use this approach, you'll discover that over time disputants will spontaneously use negotiation and contracting without your having to intervene. This will take the burden off you and promote harmonious work relationships.

From FROM CONFLICT TO COOPERATION: HOW TO MEDIATE A DISPUTE by Dr. Beverly Potter, published by Ronin Publishing,
1996, $14.95. Copyright 1996: Beverly A. Potter.

This material may be copied for your personal use as an individual. All personal copies must carry the above copyright notice.
To reprint for any other purpose, contact Dr. Beverly Potter,, PH 510-420-3669, FAX 510-420-3672,
PO Box 3008, Oakland CA 94609.



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