Informal Mediation Preparation

A HR Manager contacted me about an issue between an employee and her Manager. The employee had approached her saying she was feeling disrespected and undermined by him. The HR Manager had a brief discussion about the situation with the Manager also to hear his point of view and then thought it would be best if she held a three-way / informal mediation meeting with both of them to try and help them sort it out. Her query to me was how best to prepare them for the three-way meeting/mediation session.
This blogpost outlines five key areas that are worth exploring in pre-mediation coaching on a one-to-one basis that will optimise the chances of a successful three-way problem-solving/conflict- resolving meeting.

Set the scene for a three-way meeting

  • This is about setting the context – what the purpose of such a meeting might be, what format it could take and what parameters would need to be in place to make it work for both of them.
  • You might frame the meeting as ‘an opportunity for both of you to have a constructive conversation about the issues with a view to finding a way forward’
  • You could also advise them that your role in this meeting would be to help facilitate the communication. You would not be getting involved in the content or telling either of them what to do or making decisions for them.
  • It’s important to explain to them that the meeting is not about investigating the facts of the matter and making judgements about the wrongs and rights of each person’s actions or behaviours. Rather the purpose is that each of them get a sense of the other’s perspectives, where they are coming from in relation to the issues. This will then enable them to figure out how best to jointly problem-solve and reach a mutually acceptable outcome.
  • Explain that in order to keep it constructive, you will agree simple guidelines at the outset e.g. that each of them talks in turn, that each of them speaks respectfully to the other and that they keep confidential the matters in discussion

‘Download’ – Give an opportunity to ‘vent’

  • You may already have heard some of the details of the difficulties they have been having, however, it is important to spend some time giving them an opportunity to air their ‘story’ about the situation.
  • Your role here is to be empathic and acknowledging any upset or frustration they might be experiencing. You don’t need to agree with their viewpoint, simply demonstrate that you have heard it and that it has a validity for them, for example: “It sounds like you are finding things difficult between you and XX in the working relationship and that you’re feeling very frustrated about some of the things he/she has said to you”.
  • As part of your listening role, use questions and reflective statements to help them move from the natural tendency to focus on the negative actions or behaviours of the other person to helping them focus on what is at stake for them in this situation. For example “What was it you needed in that meeting that you didn’t get from Tom?”, clarifying questions “So you are saying you find her attitude very difficult – is it her behaviours towards you or is it more how she approaches her work that gets to you?”.
  • Other ideas on helping people move from positional viewpoints to have a more interests/needs focus can be found here

Help them get clarity on the outcomes they might want or need

  • So you have given time and space to listening to their story of what they don’t want. Now you need to help them move forward and reframe: what is it they do need instead, in order to make the working relationship function adequately.
  • I would usually start by asking questions that help the person focus on potential outcomes. For example:
    • “If both of you were to feel that this meeting has gone well, what would have happened “
    • “What outcome would you like to have from this meeting today; what outcome do you think Mike would like?
    • “So I’m hearing you say that when Anne doesn’t respond to your email requests for meetings you find it very frustrating and that it causes a delay; what is it that Anne needs to be doing differently that would work better for you?”
    • Or: “You said you found it very difficult the way John gave you the feedback. How would you have found it easier to hear/preferred John to share this kind of feedback with you?”
  • As well as asking people about their ‘ideal’ outcome, it’s important also to help them temper their expectations by exploring what would be a second-best outcome for them. This gives them an opportunity to prepare themselves to deal with and accept a more realistic outcome and what it is they can ‘live with’ in terms of the other person’s actions/behaviours.

Prepare them for communicating during the meeting

  • Invite them to think about what the main points are that they would like to get across to the other person during the meeting. Conversely, have them also consider what the main points that the other person will want to convey to them.
  • Build their awareness of what might derail the meeting. This might be things that the other person could say that would upset them or throw them off balance. Help them figure out how they would respond to a negative comment or remark from the other person.
  • They should also consider what they might say that would throw the other person off balance during the meeting. Invite them to think about how best they could bring this point across so that it’s least likely to make the other person defensive

Coach them around the importance of their attitude and mindset to this ‘conflict’ situation

  • When difficulties, tension or ‘conflict’ arises in a working relationship, the reaction most people have is negative. They feel negative towards the other person, have a sense that they have in some way been wronged by them. They also feel annoyed and angry that this situation has come along and often see it as a blot on the landscape of their working life. It can be helpful to talk to people about this phenomenon and acknowledge that it is a normal and a part of our natural defense system.
  • Let them know, that the difficulty is, that this kind of mindset can lead them into feeling quite powerless and hopeless about the situation they are now in. When they feel disempowered by a situation that has come up in their lives, they are likely to deal with it much less effectively than when they feel empowered and strong.
  • Depending on the person and the situation, they may be open to talking about this and having you gently challenge them around it. In any case, I find it useful to pose some of these questions below to them as a ‘homework’ task that they would do for themselves, to help them feel more positive and empowered about the situation.
    • How can you see this situation in a positive light?
    • What might ‘life’ be trying to teach you in this situation?
    • How might this situation be presenting new opportunities and challenges for you?
    • What do you want in the long-term for yourself in this situation?
    • What new skills, behaviours, ways of interacting might you learn from this situation?
    • How can you make this working relationship work for you?
    • What actions can you take now to make the best of this situation?

    My experience is that informal, three-way meetings to problem solve about difficulties and tension in the workplace can work very well. However, thorough pre-mediation preparation and coaching will greatly enhance the chances of its success.

Making Feedback Work

‘Feedback’ is one of the top three issues that can cause conflict or sour working relationships.
The reasons for this are many. In some cases, the feedback ‘giver’ may be abrupt, overly negative or passive-aggressive (“yes, you did an ok job with that” through gritted teeth). But the receiver of feedback also plays a role – they can resist, defend, deny or go for broke and self-deprecate (“please hit me on the other cheek because I’m so bad at XXX”). For myself too, despite years of training experience, I must admit there’s still an anxious moment before I read the Course Evaluations sheets at the end of a training session… ‘how am I going to be judged now’.

For this reason, I was attracted to the recently published and quirkily entitled ‘Thanks for the Feedback. The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well: Even When it’s Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered and Frankly Your Not in the Mood’
Harvard Negotiation Project authors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone have tackled this subject from a less frequently explored angle – what it is that clogs the airwaves in the ears and eyes of the receiver of feedback. There is learning in this text from both receiving and giving feedback and I’ve pulled together a few of the key points that I found most useful here:

Investigate the story behind the ‘label’:

More frequently than not, feedback comes in the form of simplistic labels. Most unhelpful examples of this might be ‘lacks motivation’, ‘poor attitude’ but it’s not just the negative characterization that’s the problem. Rather, it’s the fact that when we are communicating with one another our tendency is to share only the ‘headlines’ rather than the details of what exactly we mean and how we came to that conclusion.
Even if we do share what sounds like the ‘raw data’ in an attempt to be objective, (‘you missed two deadlines last month’) we seldom are enlightened enough to share the subjective filtering or background ‘story’ that we applied to this that made it a problem. In this example that might be things like ‘Those deadlines are with key customers’, ‘I’m really frustrated’ or ‘I am wondering if I didn’t emphasise the importance of this enough to her’.

To complicate things further, the person listening to the feedback will be applying their own particular filters and subjective ‘story’ to what they are hearing. So ‘you missed two deadlines’ can be heard as anything from ‘I made two small mistakes and that’s all this guy noticed’ to ‘I am the worst XXX that worked in this job’.

As a feedback receiver, don’t fall into the trap of reacting to the label, instead ask questions to figure out how it was they reached that ‘conclusion’ about you. For feedback givers, take the time first of all to clarify your own thinking as to why a particular behaviour or action is a concern and then share as many details as possible that will help the listener understand this.

Be mindful of our ‘hard-wiring’

Whether we like it or not, our genes do influence our lives. Research would suggest that how we react to negative feedback is mediated by three factors:
Baseline: This refers to our temperament, are we generally ‘happy clappy’ types, content with most of what life throws at us or, at the other end of the spectrum is there a restless or even gloomy undertone going on for us a lot of the time.
Swing: Are we easily tossed around on the waves of life? Or are our emotional reactions more straight lines than peaks and troughs?
Sustain and Recovery: How long before we move on from the negative or positive feelings? Interestingly, research shows a 3000% difference across individuals in this.

For feedback givers, put this on the table as a discussion in contracting around giving feedback. For example, when contracting around performance appraisals, talk about how it is for that person to hear feedback and what works well for them. Normalise the fact that people have different’ hard-wiring’ and invite them to share their own experience. Share your own hardwiring around feedback with them also.

For feedback receivers, while we have limited control over how others will view and respond to us, we have 100% control over how we react and let this affect us. So if you have a tendency to ruminate on negative feedback shift your attention instead to ‘how well can I bounce back from this negative message about myself.

Don’t have conversations where you talk past one another:

Here’s an example:Manager: ‘I just want to give you a bit of feedback about the Project with Grate Widgets Ltd. that you have been working on…you are doing a good job but they raised a couple of issues in a meeting a couple of weeks ago that they aren’t happy about’It would seem like the topic the Manager wants to talk about is ‘issues client isn’t happy about’. But the Team Member responds ‘Why didn’t they come to me directly if there was a problem?’ so in effect they are changing the topic of the conversation to ‘issues I’m not happy about’.

Both of these topics need ‘air time’ so the most skilful answer from the Manager would be to say ‘Ok, so I can see that you’re also not happy about some aspect of this…we need to talk through that also…which will we start with?’

Remedy: As a feedback giver, understand that if the listener feels triggered, they are likely to respond defensively. In effect, what they are saying is ‘I don’t like what I’m hearing’ and will need acknowledgement and to be listened to around this concern as well. As a feedback receiver, be mindful that your upset or annoyance at what you are hearing might cause you to focus exclusively on your own identity needs and miss out on hearing some valuable information about how you could improve.

Cultivate a ‘learning’ mindset:

This refers to our fundamental mindset about how we view people’s (and our own) abilities to grow and change. Yes, I know I’ve just referred to how fixed our hard-wiring is but that’s only part of the story of any person’s behaviours and actions. It’s easy to fall into black and white thinking – ‘he’s a good teacher’, ‘she’s very domineering’, ‘I’m no good with people/figures/computers’, ‘he’ll never make the grade’.

As a feedback giver, talk about this and promote this kind of culture in all your feedback conversations. Notice when people feel triggered and put this on the table as part of the discussion ‘Yes, I can see this is hard to hear but let’s focus on what you can learn and how I can best support you in this’.
As a feedback receiver, notice when your own thinking spirals into negativity and you have transformed ‘you could keep tighter deadlines’ into ‘I’m physically incapable of ever doing anything on time’.

Model the giving and/or receiving of feedback well:

In receiving feedback, to what extent do you model an open and curious attitude to being questioned or hearing someone else’s opinion. Are you a ‘Yes but’ or ‘Tell me more’ kind of person?

When we are really triggered by feedback, do we welcome this and say ‘hmm that’s interesting, I wonder why that bothers me so much and what can I learn about myself here?”

In giving feedback, to what extent to do you match the following criteria:

  • Clear, specific – refer to a particular issue or behaviour, not ‘awfulising’ everything the person does
  • Timely: not six months later
  • Constructive ‘It would work better if’ rather than ‘You are careless…’
  • Ensure you get your ratios right – unlike our diet, to grow and flourish as people we need more sweet than sour so focus on trying to catch people doing things right rather than wrong.

Difficult Relationships: From Negative to Positive Mindset

Difficult Relationships: From Negative to Positive Mindset. Think of a situation where you are finding it difficult to deal with or manage someone in your workplace or team. What sort of thoughts and feelings come up?
Many of you might have thoughts such as:

  • ‘What am I going to do with this (awkward/difficult/tricky) person?’…
  • ‘Why are they such a jerk?’…
  • ‘Why was I dealt this hand?’
  • ‘How am I ever going to find a way to manage them’

Feelings you might have range from frustration, irritation, feeling hopeless, trapped to downright anger, upset or even despair.

Well, according to author Marilee Adams ‘Question Thinking’ approach, either consciously or sub-consciously we constantly ask ourselves questions as part of our mind’s internal running commentary.

At a basic level, it might be mentally contemplating whether we want ham or cheese sandwiches today at the lunch counter. But everytime we meet any kind of problem or challenge, we also run a script of questions/comments, although in many cases, we are unaware of this.

Adams identifies two clear categories or mindsets that underpin our questions: ‘Judger’ and ‘Learner’.
‘Judger’ questions are fairly well known to most of us. For example, if someone isn’t performing at work or when we are finding their behaviour difficult to deal with, more than likely the type of questions running through our minds are:

  • “Why is this person not doing what they should be?”
  • “Why are they so irritating/unmotivated/awkward…etc.”
  • “Will they ever learn how to do the job right’
  • ‘Is it my fault that I haven’t been managing them properly’
  • ‘Will they ever improve…will I ever get them to change’

‘Judger’ questions stem from and reinforce a negative, blame-focused mindset and lead to what she describes as the ‘Judger Pit’.

The alternative is the ‘Learner’ mindset and the questions associated with that might be:

  • ‘What does work well here…what are their strengths’
  • ‘What can I learn from this situation?’
  • ‘How could I think differently about this situation?’
  • ‘What’s important to them, what makes them ‘tick’?’
  • ‘What can I do on my side to make things work better?’
  • ‘How can I see this as a challenge that I can overcome?’
  • ‘What learning can I take from this situation?’
  • ‘What can I do to stay motivated and positive in respect of this situation?’

If you have been reading each of the two sets of questions in your mind, you may by now start to understand what makes a tool like this so effective. It’s not so much the actual questions themselves, rather it’s the mindset that it creates as you ask these to yourself.
Just take a minute to read through each list again and see how you feel at the end of each. Have you noticed that with the first list, you can find yourself sinking into a negative, somewhat hopeless and at best resigned state of mind? And with the second list, you are feeling more upbeat, looking outward, hopeful frame of thinking?

This is where the real power of a tool like this lies – it shifts your mindset and starts to plant the seeds of possiblity, options and ways forward rather than reinforcing what’s not working. You also feel more empowered and energised so you will be more effective in how you approach the challenge and will therefore reap better result.

Using the tool

The best way I find to use this tool is to:

  • Think about a situation where you are finding someone else’s behaviour or work a bit of a challenge to deal with
  • Become aware of the type of thinking/questions that you are asking yourself – in particular, any ‘Judger’ questions that come to mind
  • Now consciously select some of the ‘Learner’ questions – recite them mentally to yourself, even write them down
  • Then go away and forget about it, letting your sub-conscious mind work on this positive direction. If the situation does come to mind, try and keep it focused on simply asking the ‘Learner’ rather than the ‘Judger’ questions.

You will be surprised at how your energy towards this person slowly shifts from negative to more neutral …. and if you persist, that somehow solutions start to appear.