“An ounce of mediation is worth a pound of arbitration and a ton of litigation.” — Joseph Grynbaum, American mediator.
In any group greater than two people, you’ll inevitably have conflict. (Even two people may prove one too many on some issues.) So it should come as no surprise that your team members will occasionally rub each other the wrong way, resulting in conflicts that come to you for resolution.
In most cases, you can all sit down and reach a reasonable agreement after a little give-and-take discussion—assuming everyone wants to work it out. Or, if the disagreement seems petty, you can just make a quick decision and tell everyone to get back to work. But some conflicts are too deep-rooted or antagonistic to dismiss so easily.
In those situations, you’ll need a set of mediation tools you can quickly pick up and put to work on the issue. They don’t work for every situation, but I find the following tips help me clear up most conflicts between others, in business and in life:
1. Research the issue. Don’t go into the situation blindly. Know the basic situation and have some idea of how you can clear the roadblock, based on how others have handled similar situations inside and outside your organization. If you don’t have much mediation experience, brush up on the basics before you get started. Consult a more experienced colleague or an expert if necessary.
2. Meet with the conflicting parties separately. Interestingly, some mediation experts say never to do this, because they claim it generates mistrust. Others insist it’s necessary to get each person’s side of the story, which I tend to agree with. But if this step makes you uncomfortable, or you feel it will make the situation worse, you can skip it.
3. Meet with the conflicting parties together. One at a time, ask each person or party to present their side of the issue, assuring them they can do so uninterrupted. Enforce that promise, even if one of the others tries to break in. Once everyone has presented their cases, summarize the situation as you understand it. Ask what each person specifically wants from the other(s) to resolve the conflict.
4. Investigate the reliability of the parties involved. Double-check the information you’ve received. Research the incidents mentioned by the parties, probe their allegations, and if necessary, ask other co-workers or involved parties privately about the incident. Consider the reputations of each person involved, taking their previous actions and conflicts into account. All this may give you a handle on the situation that will let you resolve it more quickly. For example, professional mediator Jeffrey Krivis once short-circuited a potentially explosive sexual harassment case when he found convincing evidence that the relationship was actually consensual.
5. Consider what you’ve learned. Think deeply and thoroughly about what your investigations and interviews with the conflicting parties have revealed. Don’t take too long, but do give yourself long enough for the information to percolate through your subconscious. You might find a way to render a decision at that point.
6. Forge an agreement. If you can hammer out a solution at this point, great. If not, at least try to get the parties to agree to further negotiation so you can put the situation behind you as cleanly and as quickly as possible. Repeat as necessary.
Calling for Backup
You can handle relatively minor situations quickly and fairly with the process I’ve described here, especially when dealing with issues that boil down to personality clashes or spats over resources. If it doesn’t quickly produce results, however, don’t hesitate to call in a mediation expert, which will be less expensive in the end, since you can’t umpire disputes full-time.
Regardless of how you decide to handle an intervention, act immediately. Never let the problem fester. If you do, it may affect your entire team, dragging others in and forcing them to take sides. The longer you wait, the more work it will take to fix the problem. So when co-worker friction stars putting off smoke, step in and deal with it right away—before it ignites a fire you can’t handle.