Don’t Play Chinese Whispers in Difficult Conversations!

I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant” (Alan Greenspan, American Economist) 

It’s so easy to mishear and misunderstand what others are saying to us and vice verse, particularly when tensions are starting to rise. Here’s a simple approach to help with this.
Watch the video (4 min) or see the transcript below:

Video Transcript

Hi, Mary Rafferty here…

Let me ask you, the last time you were on the phone to somebody and you were passing on information about your contact details, for example, your email address or your phone number, how did they respond? They probably said something like, “let me just check I’ve got that right…” and called back your phone number to you and then you had a chance to confirm or correct any digit they might’ve gotten wrong.
Why do we do that? Because it’s so easy for things to get lost in translation. That’s why the kid’s birthday game, Chinese Whispers is so much fun.

But this common sense approach of repeating back to somebody what it is we’ve heard them say and making sure we’ve accurately understood that, isn’t just for situations where we’re communicating phone numbers or credit card details. It’s very useful in many contexts, particularly where there might be some tension or disagreement creeping into a conversation.

Mediators do this all the time. Instead of jumping in with a response, immediately you can say something like:
“John, let me check that I’ve understood what you’re trying to say there. Are you saying you find the deadlines are too tight?” or
“Am I right that the way you see it, you’re not so sure that this project is going to work as well as it should work? Have I got that right?”
and then you wait and check with John, have you understood what he wanted to say. He might correct something and clarify something and then you check in again and then only then, when you fully understand what he’s trying to say, move on.

So why is this such a useful approach?
Well, first of all, our capacity to mishear, misinterpret and put our own spin on what it is we’re hearing other people say is so strong, particularly when there is tension or we are starting to get a bit irritated or having a bit of resistance to what the other person is saying.
By stopping, checking in ‘let me see if I  understand what you’re trying to say…” it reduces that interference. This greatly increases the chances that we’re going to accurately hear what the person is saying and be able to tune into where they’re at and therefore our responses will be more appropriate.

This simple approach of truly and genuinely listening and really trying to understand what the other person is trying to say and being open to hear that even if we don’t agree with it, makes it much more likely that they in turn will listen to what we have to say and try and understand that. And isn’t that what we’re really trying to do in conversations regardless of what the subject or the topic is.

So the key takeaway from this video is to start to use the phrase or use your own wording, something along the lines of,
“Let me check that I’ve fully understood what you’re trying to say…”
“Let me clarify… “ or “If I’ve got that right, are you saying ABC, have I got that right?
or “Can you help me understand because I  think I’m missing something…” and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how positively that impacts on your conversation.

I hope you found this video useful.
If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it with them or share using the facebook or linkedin icons above.
If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

Thanks for watching

Trying to Get Your Point Across But They Won’t Listen?

Ever feel you’ve hit a brick wall (or an iceberg!) when trying to get your point across to someone? No matter what you say they just won’t listen. Here’s another way to think about how to handle this situation:

Video Transcript

Mary Rafferty here, in today’s video I want to share an analogy that can be very useful when you find yourself in a conversation with somebody and you have the sense they are not listening to you.
Perhaps you’re trying to get them to understand your viewpoint.
Perhaps it’s about changing what they are doing or how they’re doing something.
But they are not taking on board what you say. You keep explaining why e.g. ‘here’s a better way of doing …’ and they just argue back.
You have that sense you are meeting with a brick wall.

I remember when I was a child and would go to my parents and ask them for something for example, can I go and visit a friend or can I go to a party or can I buy x or y. They would say ‘No’ and I would say ‘But why?’ and they would respond
‘Because that’s the why’
I remember that being one of the most frustrating and disempowering things they could say. You really have a sense of not knowing where else to go with your request when someone says that to you.
It can be like that also in these kinds of conversations.

I did some coaching recently with a manager – let’s call him Paul. He is a team leader in a client services organisation. The organization is changing and part of that change is how the frontline staff are interacting with the clients.
Paul was having a conversation about this with one staff member – Jim. He was explaining the need to have a broader focus, to be seeing more clients, as part of their role and that they needed to be involving other services too in supporting these clients.
But Jim wasn’t having any of it and not open to these changes.
Paul would make another argument for example about how such a change would be good for the client, for the organization and that times are changing and things have to move forward. But Jim wasn’t having any of it. Paul felt a real sense of ‘because that’s the why’ from Jim’s responses.
The metaphor of an iceberg is one of my favorite to depict what happens in these kinds of negotiations or conversations. One tenth of an iceberg is above water and nine tenths below. It’s a little bit like that in these kinds of conversations. Only a small part of what Jim is saying is expressing what’s really going on beneath the surface for him.
In other words, what are the true drivers behind his resistance?

It might be his thinking, his feelings, his concerns, or maybe it’s about his values. Maybe it’s about his identity, how he sees himself. Or perhaps for Jim, it’s the interpretations he has on what the change might mean for him. All of that thinking is more than likely not being expressed in the arguments that Jim is making to Paul.

So why might it be useful for Paul to understand what’s happening for Jim beneath the iceberg?

Three reasons:.

  1. Paul needs to have more insight and more understanding of what it was that was blocking Jim, what the  underlying reasons behind his resistance were. Was it about fear of change? Was it about his values – perhaps he saw his role in a different way? Maybe he felt that the new version that Paul had proposed of seeing lots of clients and having what might seem like a superficial interaction with lots of clients was contravening his values.
    Was it perhaps fear of not having the skills and capabilities required? Was it a fear of too much work?
    Until Paul knows, he cannot address those concerns or move the conversation forward in a useful way that starts to look at what would work for both people.
  2. While I’ve never used the ‘Because that’s the why’ phrase in a workplace, I have been guilty of using it as a parent, with my girls when they were smaller. When I did they would ask me what the reason was…what was my ‘why’.  I would find that I’d have to really think about this…why did I not want to let them go to the party or to visit the friend.
    That’s very often in the case of Jims of this world. They haven’t thought through why they are resisting something. They don’t think it’s a good idea but haven’t reflected on why this is, for themselves. So by Paul asking about this and exploring it, it helps Jim understand himself better too.
  3. The third reason is that asking these kinds of questions and showing interest in Jim and his point of view, there will be much better connection and goodwill between him and Paul. And of course good will and connection are an essential prerequisite for any kind of collaboration and cooperation.

So the key takeaway from this video: Most of you will find yourselves in one of those push-pull conversations where you have met ‘iceberg’. You’ve probably started to build one around yourself as well, because in the case above, Paul was also getting quite stuck-in about his way of doing things.

When that happens, somebody’s going to have to get out there with the pick axe and start asking questions. You have to build some mutual understanding first of all, before trying to find ways to meet everybody’s needs and find a workable action plan to move forward.

I hope you found this video useful.
If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it with them or share using the facebook or linkedin icons above.
If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

Thanks for watching

Dealing with a Difficult Person? Start Here:

Video Transcript

Hi, Mary Rafferty here.
In this video today I want to talk to you on the topic of dealing with difficult people. This is a very broad subject and there are so many variables that will influence how best to respond or deal with any particular situation where you’re experiencing another person as difficult. For example, it depends on whether it’s in the workplace, at home, your role in the conversation, the purpose of the conversation, etc. It’s impossible to cover all of those in this short video.
Instead I want to point out a couple of underlying principles that regardless of the situation or the person, these will hold true.

All of us have this box or this category in our minds, let’s call it the “difficult person” box and there are a few people in our environment, whether it’s at work, at home, in the community that all of us have parked in this category.
We’ve had a few encounters with them.
It has been difficult for whatever reason and we have then assigned them a place in this little room.
It would be lovely if we could put them in the room, mentally at least, turn the key and never have to deal or interact with them again. That would be fine if we have that choice and sometimes we do have that choice.
But in a lot of situations these are people we work with or they are people we live with. So we don’t have the choice to say “okay, I’m not going to talk to that person again…I’m not going to deal with them again”

So let me challenge you a little on this.
What if I was to say, actually there’s no such thing as a fixed category of difficult people?
Now I’m not trying to be Pollyanna-like about this.
Neither am I saying that there aren’t situations and times where everyone experiences someone else in their work or their home life or wherever, as very frustrating, very annoying and difficult to be around.
Perhaps they say things that are very hurtful.
Perhaps they say things that are very irritating. All of us have those experiences of a few other people in our environment. But having this very fixed category in our mind of the ‘difficult persons’ box that we assign the same people to, over and over again is really not very helpful.

Let me explain.
We like to think that our minds work a little bit like a camera. So there is a tree in the field. We take our camera, we snap, and then we have an accurate representation of the tree.
We imagine our minds are similar. We see a person out there, they are a ‘difficult person’ and we have captured an accurate image of this ‘difficult’ person and it’s a very fixed solid reality.
In fact, our mind is more like a virtual reality headset.
So we’re not actually experiencing the objective reality out there. Yes, it’s happening, but we’re creating our own internal experience of what’s happening outside us.

So you might wonder…virtual reality headset camera, so what?
Well, that has a number of significant positive implications for how you deal with difficult person or indeed any challenge in your life.
You see the more you can start to grasp that our experience is internally generated, that we live in in a thought-created reality, it just allows us to relax our grip on this very fixed, solid idea of this person being a ‘difficult’ person.
Yes, you’ll have memories of things that happened. You’ll have worries and concerns about something in the future, but the more you can start to see that that’s a transient and thought-generated noise that’s constantly going through our minds, the greater sense of ease, composure, sense of balance that you will have regardless of the behavior of the other person.

You’ll begin to see that if you’re in a more relaxed state of mind, if you’re less caught up in the noise in your head about that person, then you’re going to be different in those interactions.

You’re going to be more open and be less defensive.
You’re going to be less wary, less on edge.
You’re going to have greater sense of goodwill towards that person. That will impact on the interactions you have with them.
Secondly, for the time you’re not in that person’s presence you’ll be much less impacted. So often people say to me, you know, it’s that I’m worrying and thinking about this person when I’m at home in the evening. This person is taking up too much space in my head.
That’s not going to be happening as much.
Instead, you will begin to see that this is just all part of the continuous noise that everybody’s experiences about difficult situations in their lives. When you don’t take it on and take it all too seriously, it sort of disappears by itself.

You will find yourself less caught up worrying about their behavior or worrying about the next interaction or ruminating on the last interaction you’ve had with them.
You’re just going to be in a more resourceful, more open, more relaxed state of mind.
Because you are more resourceful, then you’re going to be having much more effective and useful thoughts and ideas about how to deal with the person in the way that gets the best outcome for whatever situation you’re in.

So the key takeaway from this video is that, yes, there are individuals out there who for one reason or another, all of us will find at some point in our lives very difficult.
We will fall into a groove of very negative thinking and a very negative story about that person and their behaviors.
That in turn will have a knock on effect on your own sense of wellbeing and composure, certainly when you are around that person.
It will also have a negative fallout in on the interactions with them and it leaves you feeling unresourceful and unresilient at a time when you most need to be in a good state of mind. So the first thing you need to do, is to step back and realise the extent to which you are getting caught up in this negative story. Only then can you access your own inner resourcefulness and resilience to best manage the situation.

So if you found this video helpful and someone is coming to mind that you’d like some help in dealing with, please drop me an email at

You might find this blogpost here helpful also.

If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it using the social media buttons above or forward to a friend.

Thanks for watching!

How do you listen if someone is upset, annoyed and off-loading on you?

Listening is a much-lauded but greatly under-used skill – and not because we don’t know how to listen well.  

Instead, it’s that so easily fall into the trap of trying to ‘fix’ the situation rather than taking the time to let a person talk (and think it) through and in doing that, find their own way to sort the situation.


Video Transcript:

Hi, this is Mary Rafferty here and welcome to this short video on listening.
What I want to talk to you today about is listening in the context of a difficult conversation where somebody might be annoyed,  upset or angry. It might be with you, it might be with another person, but either way they’re coming to you to unload and unburden themselves.
The question is how do we listen in this kind of a conversation? So ‘listening’ is a really important skill and we’ve all heard the term ‘active listening’. But my experience is that a lot of us don’t listen very well and it’s actually a very under-used and underrated skill. That’s because we have a sense that when we’re listening we’re just sitting there nodding, not saying anything. We’re not really adding any value to the situation or to the conversation. We’re just letting the person go on. We wonder how is that helping solve the problem or get this situation dealt with so we can then move onto the next challenge we have to deal with.

So this brings us to the question, what actually is our role when somebody comes to us with a problem, what am I trying to do as the listener? And of course the problem is that for a lot of people, the default mode we go into, is that I have to fix this situation. So if somebody is talking to me and unpacking a problem, as the listener, what’s happening in my head are thoughts such as:

“Oh, I have to come up with a solution…I wonder if this is what they could do…that’s what they could do. Now how can I get them to do this, that, and the other.”

That means that a) my attention and energy is going to be going to what’s happening in my mind rather than what’s happening for them, and b) I’m going start to feel impatient and perhaps I’m going to want to push them very quickly onto the solution that I’ve come up with.
I’ve probably really not paid an awful lot of attention to the actual content of what they’re saying, other than to discern some facts so that, that can help me quickly come up with some sort of an optimal and speedy resolution to the situation for them.

So rather than us trying to fix the situation for that person, when we start to see that when somebody has a problem, it’s always intimately bound up with the noise in their own heads, the thinking, the feeling that’s going on for them. Nobody can actually solve the problem for somebody else.
They have to have to come to that place by themselves. And you know, we can persuade and advise and do all that stuff. But really people have to find their own way to, to work through this stuff in their own heads.

As a listener, then our role is to help them start to unpack and get some of what what’s going on inside their heads, get some of that out on the table. Because when they have unpacked that a little and when they’ve kind of verbalized and talked things through a bit, then they’re starting to have more clarity, more ideas. They’re starting to get their own  insights and ideas as to what they can do to fix the situation.
So when we’re listening from that space, listening to help the person to understand the situation for themselves, listening to empower the person to figure this out for themselves, then we’re going to be very different in how we listen to the person.

You know, we talk about active listening skills such as nodding and open body language reflecting back, nodding etc. When we’re listening from a space of trying to support a person think something through for themselves, then we’re going to be doing those things automatically because we will see the value in those.
We will see the value in making space and letting the person talk, helping them hear what they’ve just said, which is what we do when we reflect back what we have heard them say.
“So what you’re saying to me is you’re really annoyed about. Can you tell me more about what it is that really got to you there? Oh, okay. So what I’m hearing you say is that, you felt disrespected in the meeting last week with Jean, or you felt disrespected in the meeting last week with me. What was it about that? What, was happening there for you?
Can you say more about that? Oh, okay. So this is for you, is about not feeling valued or this for you is about your project not being accepted.”

So by listening from that place, we can be much more effective in helping to actually solve the problem for the person. We’re just going to be automatically more empathetic, more connected with the person. There’s a saying ‘people don’t care what you know until they know that you care’. So we’ll actually come across as more caring, more interested in them. And that in itself can give the impetus and the space for them to start to have the insights that help them figure out what they need to do or that help them communicate to you the part you might need to play in helping them sort the situation out.

To summarize then, the next time you’re in a situation where somebody is full of a story full of anxiety, full of fear, full of annoyance or irritation shift out of the ‘how do I fix this’ mode and the sense that ‘they are handing me the problem, I’ve got to sort it out’ and instead consider how you can be a catalyst here. How can you be a catalyst to help them see what they need to see so that they can take the next steps in this situation for them; or to help them communicate what’s going on inside their mind and the thinking and the feelings that are going on that you might need to understand so that you can play the part that you have to in helping sort the situation out.

I hope you found this video useful. I
If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it with them or share using the facebook or linkedin icons above.
If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

Thanks for watching

Trying to Manage a ‘Difficult’ Person: Are they Taking too much space in your head?

Does a person on your team sap everyone’s energy?Stressed out with too much thinking

Do you find yourself putting too much time and attention as a manager on their behaviours?

Are you constantly listening to grumblings from others about them?

When people come for coaching in these situations, they are usually looking for a list of strategies. How can they be stronger, firmer, more hard-nosed in ‘making the other person’ do what they should be doing.
‘How could I be more robust with them…?’ or
‘How could I make them sit up and take on board what I’m saying?’

A couple of months ago, I worked with Liz who manages a team of 8 people. She had reached the end of her tether dealing with a person on her team – let’s call him Tom, who has been difficult to deal with on many levels, over the previous 12 to 18 months. She wanted some techniques and strategies to help her address Tom’s behaviour.

It’s so tempting to think that if you could just find the right way to say something, talk to them, negotiate with them, cajole them or coerce them, things would be different. And, yes indeed, there are certainly are ways of communicating and interacting with another person that can either escalate or de-escalate conflict. I have written a lot about these already here here, and here, for example.

But if the only thing that you needed when you are dealing with a difficult person was tips and techniques, life would be very simple indeed. The world abounds with self-help books and information on ‘how to’s’ of every type. Yet, for any of us when we are faced with a stressful and challenging situation, it’s not usually simply a question of lacking information or techniques.

Instead, it’s the amount of noise and stressful thinking that gets generated in our brains in situations, that really stumps us. It does begin to feel like they are literally ‘doing your head in’.

Some of the things preying on Liz’s mind in the situation with Tom were:

  • Frustration and irritation that Tom isn’t fully performing in his role and is upsetting other people on the team
  • Concern that performance deadlines won’t be met and the knock-on impact this will have on the customer and productivity
  • Frustration at the amount of time that she has to spend listening to Tom’s colleagues complaining about his disrespectful behaviour towards them
  • Self-doubt that she hasn’t been managing the situation effectively and unease that some of this behaviour might be ‘her fault’
  • Helplessness because she has actually had a number of conversations with Tom to address various aspects of his behaviour but these have had little effect
  • Exasperation that her valuable time could be used so much more effectively if Tom would just do what he is paid to do.

In her latest book, The He’art of Thriving (2017), Kimberley Hare reminds us of one of the great adages in coaching:   p=P-I

Performance = Potential Minus Interference

This formula refers to the swirl of (usually negative) emotions and thoughts that are distracting us, and sabotaging our own sense of clarity and well-being, in any given situation.

For Liz, there is a whole ‘thought-storm’ ranging from frustration, exasperation to anxiety taking up space in her brain. And it’s impacting on her confidence, leaving her feeling helpless and unresourceful about the next steps to deal with Tom.

What can you do about this ‘interference’?

How do you manage when your head gets so full with a problem that you start to doubt yourself?

How do you get back into the driving seat and begin to trust again, your own inner knowing and commonsense about how to manage a difficult situation?

Hare (2017) is one of a growing number of coaches and practitioners sharing a new and transformational paradigm* about the nature of the human mind and how our experience gets created.

‘Interference is always coming from our thinking in the moment, not our circumstances or the external world’ (Hare, 2017).

She points to two key and essential truths about how our minds work:

1. The human mind only works one way: from the inside-out:

Your mind (rather than what is happening around you) generates your moment-to-moment experience of any situation. You cannot have an experience without your thinking being involved.

2. We all have a built-in design for success, well-being, clarity and creativity:

Whether you believe it or not, you have an innate and inherent source of insight and wisdom that can provide you with fresh and creative solutions to any problem you encounter.

These two truths might sound simplistic and aspirational. But the implications have enormous potential to transform your personal and professional life.

The more deeply you understand and realise these two facts, the more you thrive.

Going back to my client Liz above, here’s what Liz began to ‘see’, as we explored the depth of these two truths.

First, she realised that, tempting as it was to see Tom as the ‘cause’ of her stress and frustration, that experience was being generated in her own mind. Knowing she has 100% responsibility for where her experience in any moment comes from gave her back a sense of power and psychological freedom. She no longer felt a victim of Tom’s behaviour.

‘You can never experience anything but your own thinking. It’s just not possible. Seeing this fact is like releasing the emergency brake of a sluggishly moving car. In the next moment performance improves’
Invisible Power, Insight Principles at Work: Everyone’s Inner Capacity: Manning, Charbit & Krot (2015)

Secondly, she realised (contrary to other ‘stress management’ training she had attended) that she didn’t have to try and ‘manage’ or stop her thinking about Tom and the situation.

Knowing instead that underneath all the barrage of negative thoughts and feelings she is having about Tom, her mind has its own innate self-correcting mechanism that will always kick in.

She could see that all she had to do was take a step back, get quiet and let her own inner knowing emerge, about where next to go, in dealing with the situation with Tom.

So you are thinking…what happened to Tom?

Did Liz pull off some miracle that transformed his behaviour? Probably not. (And that’s not what this blog is about!)

But she did feel a lot lighter, more at ease and so much clearer about what the next steps she had to take around managing him. She also found that much the worry and rumination about Tom as a ‘big problem’ had dropped away. She was back feeling confident and in control and had a renewed energy and focus to get on with her work.

‘Everyone in this world shares the same innate source of wisdom but it is hidden by the tangle of our own misguided personal thoughts.’
Sydney Banks


* Curious to learn more?

I have been studying and learning about this approach for the past three years and am applying it in particular, to coaching Managers and Leaders dealing with challenging and intractable conflict situations.

Known as ‘The Inside Out Paradigm’ or ‘Three Principles of Mind Consciousness and Thought’ (see for example this website: Three Principles Global Community or the references above) it is increasingly being shared and taught in a variety of contexts. Ranging from businesses, schools, hospitals, multi-national corporations, prisons, social services etc. it is one of the most effective ways to achieve well-being, resilience as well as effortless success.

Replaying a ‘difficult conversation’ in bed at night? Learn why we do it and how to stop

What a peaceful, pastoral scene, a cow contemplatively chewing on its cud. Grass is high in roughage and hard to digest. Nature has given some mammals the capacity to regurgitate the cud. By chewing it over and over, it yields more nutrients and benefits. We aren’t cows but we too get into cud-chewing behaviour. Have…

Going Around in Circles in a Conversation? Circular arguing and how to Break That Cycle

Circular arguing: Spinning Your WheelsA common question in ‘Difficult Conversations for Managers’ workshops is what to do when it feels like you are in one of those fruitless dialogues, a circular argument, repeating the same thing without achieving anything.
The other person isn’t listening or taking on board what you need them to hear or understand.

A recent example was where a manager was trying to get a team member to implement a change made in a work process. They ended up in a push-pull dynamic where she kept telling him things needed to be done differently and he kept telling her the old way was better.

It’s a common hole to fall into in a ‘difficult conversation’ and at the end of it, both people end up feeling dizzy and frustrated with one another and having made no progress on the actual issue.

The problem is obvious – neither the manager nor the team member are listening to each other.

That’s because each of them mistakenly think that the best way to influence someone’s behaviour is to repeatedly tell them why their own way is the best.

The Problem with Circular Arguing

Last Sunday, the first dry day in a week, we had the bright idea to go for a long, energising walk to a nearby woods. We parked on what looked like a relatively solid piece of ground at the entrance. An hour and a half later refreshed and ruddy-cheeked we jumped into the car, anticipating a warming cup of creamy coffee in the local café to revive us.

I turn on the engine, put my foot on the accelerator but there’s no forward movement. I give a bit more gas and still, we’re not going anywhere. Too late…I now realise that the patch of ground is not asphalt at all but a well-disguised muddy sump. The more I try to move forward, the more the back wheels spin frantically, but in vain, in the sopping wet ground. Instead of moving forward, I am digging a deeper track into the mini swamp I was already half-mired in.

These kind of circular arguments are just like that. Both people are spinning their wheels but yet there is no progress on the issue. In fact, both are just becoming more ‘dug-in’ to their views and the rightness of those. Despite the best of intentions (trying to get out of the rut) each person is just digging themselves and the other person further in.

When you keep arguing back, it looks to the other person like you aren’t listening to them. And when we aren’t being listened to, we either repeat what we have said or find another way of saying the same thing. So they are simply mirroring your behaviour. Both of you are spinning your wheels. But the car is sinking deeper into the mire.

Getting Out of the Circular Arguing Rut

So how do you break that dynamic? How do you get the person to stop arguing for long enough for them to really hear what you are trying to say?

Start by taking your foot of the gas pedal.

Translating that into concrete terms in a conversation or negotiation means harnessing the rather magical power of listening.
Yes, I know, we all think we listen well.
You know their arguments so well you could recite them yourself. So you must have been listening.

But a lot of the time when we are listening, we are not listening to try and understand where the other person is coming from. We are evaluating what they are saying. We are thinking about what we will say next. What might be the best way to refute what they have said?

One of the worlds best-known experts on negotiation and mediation and co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation is William Ury. In his Ted Talk, he tells us the three key advantages real listening has:

  • It helps us understand and really ‘get’ where the other person is coming from.

“Negotiation, after all, is an exercise in influence. You’re trying to change someone else’s mind. How can you possibly change someone else’s mind if you don’t know where their mind is?”

  •  It’s a way of connecting with the other person and building rapport and trust (genuine listening,  not pseudo head-nodding). It shows we have an eye to the other person’s concerns. It shows we care.
  • This is the counter-intuitive piece: Listening well to someone makes it more likely that the other person will listen to us.

“It helps get to “yes.” In short, listening may be the cheapest concession we can make in a negotiation. It costs us nothing, and it brings huge benefits.”

(Quotations from William Ury, The Power of Listening Ted Talk)

What does ‘real listening to’ look like?

 One of the most powerful ways to really listen to someone is the mediators favourite tool: paraphrasing or reflecting back.

Here’s what Dr George Thompson, President and Founder of the Verbal Judo Institute says about paraphrasing:

“When you paraphrase, your job is to get at what they mean, not what they say…what do they really mean. And to do that you wrap it in your words…because you should be calmer and less upset, and you give it back to them, to ensure you have heard and understood it correctly…

[Paraphrasing back to someone what they have just stated] …creates a third person in a two-person conflict: it’s not his words and his meaning, it’s not your words and your meaning, it’s a blend”

(Dr. George J. Thompson, Verbal Judo Institute, Verbal Judo: Diffusing Conflict Through Conversation)

So when you paraphrase back to someone, you’ve moved out of opposition stance and into a mediator-stance. You are no longer trying to convince them of the rightness of your argument and the wrongness of their own.

In concrete terms using the example above, let’s suppose the team member says (again!)

‘I don’t see it helping the client at all…it will mean they have to wait longer…it’s too big a change to introduce now…I can’t see it helping anyone’

Instead of the Manager responding back with a counter-argument, paraphrasing back could sound something like

‘Let me see if I get what it is you are finding difficult about implementing this change…you are concerned about the waiting time for the client and that that might be longer…is that it?’
‘Can you say more about that?’

Here’s how paraphrasing back can really help:

  • Instead of having to reach for another defending statement, the team member will be drawn into listening.
  • They have an opportunity to reflect further on their own views and clarify if what they have just said truly communicates what’s important to them.
  • You will have an opportunity to understand the mental barriers getting in the way of them accepting your viewpoint. So you are now better able to address their concerns and needs.
  • Their viewpoint might add some useful ideas or suggestions that could have an even better outcome for all concerned.
  • Most importantly you have shifted the dynamic from a ‘Me-versus-You’ stance to ‘Me-and-You-versus-The Issue’. Now you are in the role of someone who is trying to facilitate exploration of an issue for which there might be many valid ways forward. Much easier than trying to haul someone by the lapels over the line of an argument.

As Mark Gerzon author of ‘Leading Through Conflict’ reminds us

“The challenge for each of us is to ‘find a place in ourselves from which to listen, a place so grounded that we can listen even if it might change our beliefs’”

(‘Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities’, Mark Gerzon)

Download our free eBook here: POISE NOW 8 steps to Navigating Difficult Conversations 

How to Implement a Mediation Mindset in Your Organisation

The Mediation Act, 2017 was passed in September 2017 and is the culmination of a slow but steady increase in the use of mediation to resolve disputes in a variety of contexts. The workplace and employment arena has also seen a growth in the use of mediation compared to more time-consuming adversarial processes such as investigations and litigation, to deal with conflict and complaints.

So is ‘mediation’ the new kid on the block, the panacea for all people problems, the new buzz word to be doing and training in and trying to introduce into an organisation?

There is no doubt that mediation as an intervention has many benefits. Research into workplace mediation shows a high degree of satisfaction from users of the process as well as settlement rates in the 80-90% range. The speed and informality of the intervention minimise the long-term damage to working relationships, in contrast with the lengthier, formal and adversarial nature of investigations.

However, the research is also showing is that parachuting in external mediators in a piecemeal fashion, as a last resort with hard cases, has limited impact. Rather, the focus needs to be on pro-active prevention and management of workplace conflict, where it’s not just about ad hoc mediation interventions but implementing a ‘mediation mindset’ throughout the organisation.

 So what do we mean by a ‘mediation mindset’?

A mediation mindset is focused on embedding the understanding of conflict not as something to be avoided or suppressed. Instead, it’s about accepting the inevitability of conflict and taking a strategic approach in managing it. It’s about ensuring that both the skills and responsibility for effectively managing conflict are devolved right throughout the organisation.

ACAS, the UK’s version of the WRC have carried out a number of in-depth studies over the past 5 years into dispute resolution in the workplace and in particular the role of mediation. (See below for further reading and references).

“One of the main findings was that the piecemeal adoption of mediation is not a panacea for workplace conflict. Instead, participants pointed to the need for organisations to adopt more integrated approaches which locate conflict management as a central element of HR strategy”
(Latreille and Saundry, 2015)

Organisational Prevention and Management of Conflict

This infographic highlights a smorgasbord of interventions and processes that could underpin a co-ordinated and cohesive strategy to prevent and manage conflict and complaints in organisations.

Policies and procedures that emphasise informal conflict resolution:

Organisations need to have a robust mediation policy with clear guidance, expectations and procedures that educate employees about conflict management and emphasise the benefits of early resolution and options such as mediation.
Dignity at Work policies in most organisations make no more than a passing reference to the need for mediation. In contrast, the Civil and Public Service Dignity at Work Policy which was reviewed in 2015, has a strong emphasis on mediation. For example:

The policy’s preamble states:

  • “The intention of this policy is to encourage the use of informal resolution methods and the use of mediation as often and as early as possible during disputes. Complaints should only proceed to formal investigation once efforts to utilise local resolution methods or mediation have been exhausted, or are considered to be unsuitable due to the nature of the complaint”
    Dignity at Work, 2015, An Anti-Bullying, Harassment and Sexual Harassment Policy for The Irish Civil Service
  • Explicit reference to the option of mediation as being available at any stage of the complaints procedure:

Mediation can be used to achieve early intervention and resolution for any workplace conflict under this policy” (emphasis in the policy document)

  • A detailed overview of how the mediation process works, presented both in text and graphic format. It also spells out ten key benefits of using mediation to resolve issues.
  • Introduction of a new role and step in the process – the Designated Person* (as cited in the HSA Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work). Their function and role is to oversee the complaint once it reaches the formal stage, part of which involves providing a compulsory information session on mediation (emphasis added).

Line management training

One of the key barriers identified across all of the ACAS research was resistance from line managers to implementing soft skill approaches such as mediation and/or having difficult dialogues. This stemmed to a large extent from lack of confidence as well as skills/know-how in handling difficult conversations and/or mediating informally. Fear that efforts to address performance or behavioural issues might result in a backlash grievance fed into their reluctance to engage with potentially confrontational conversations. There was also a concern that such conversations could lead to grievances or complaints against managers.

The research identified a number of measures that could support managers, whom it identified as key actors in the management of conflict in the organisation. This was seen as a central aspect of the HR strategy and also reflected in the development of key managerial competencies within the organisations surveyed.

  • Engagement and buy-in to a culture of resolution, at senior levels, to be modelled and communicated throughout the organisation. People managers need to feel confident that they will have support to put the time and effort into resolution interventions, as well as around any legal exposure they might fear, in addressing ‘difficult conversations’.
  • Competency frameworks for managers at all levels to include people skills. For example, at the recruitment stage in one organisation, part of the process involved participating in a thirty-minute role play about a performance management issue with a member of staff (Latreille and Saundry, 2015).
  • Training and coaching in relevant skill areas e.g.
    • Handling difficult conversations:
      A recent CIPD survey evidence revealed that ‘conflict management’ and ‘managing difficult conversations’ were the two most cited skills that line managers found most difficult to apply (CIPD, 2013).
    • Conflict coaching: In contrast to mediation, conflict coaching is about handing back capability and responsibility to people to resolve issues themselves. For example, it can enable and empower managers who hold accountability for raising ‘difficult conversations’. In one organisation, conflict coaching was introduced with good success as a new initiative to support individual managers to develop their confidence and capability in handling difficult issues. (Latreille and Saundry, 2015)
    • Mediation skills for managers: Saundry & Wibberley (2012) pointed to the need to locate mediation skills “closer to the locus of conflict and disputes…[by] placing a greater emphasis on the provision of mediation skills to key actors as opposed to training accredited mediators

Accredited mediation training for a smaller cohort of staff as internal mediators

 Having a pool of trained mediators available in-house makes the process much more accessible and available both in terms of time and cost. Saundry and Wibberley (2015) found that introducing in-house could have a “transformative effect on workplace relationships and critically lay the platform for channels of communication which facilitate the early and informal resolution of workplace conflict.”
They cited the example where in one organisation this mediation training had helped to rebuild relationship between managers and trade union representatives such that “an adversarial approach to disciplinary and grievance issues was replaced by one in which the parties sought to resolve issues at the earliest possible stage through informal discussion and negotiation” (Saundry and Wibberley, 2015).

Ensuring that the HR function continues to play a central and strategic role in conflict management

 While the role of operational managers in handling conflict constructively is critical, the research also pointed to the continued need for HR to strategically co-ordinate and foster the development of a resolution culture. This means on-site, hands-on support (rather than devolution of all HR to remote shared services) as well as adequate training – in mediation skills, conflict coaching as well as having a good theoretical knowledge base around the dynamics of organisational conflict competence.

“…[O]rganisations [need] to adopt more integrated approaches which locate conflict management as a central element of HR strategy” (Saundry et al, 2014).


 Clearly greater attention and use of formal mediation in the workplace is to be welcomed. However, it is likely to be much more effective and impactful in the context of an organisational ‘mediation mindset’. In the words of Saundry and Wibberley, 2012:

“…organisational support for mediation is not enough in itself – instead there needs to be a recognition of the longer-term and indirect benefits of conflict management and its centrality to meeting commercial and strategic organisational objectives”

References and Further Reading:

Conflict management: a shift in direction: CIPD, 2015

Towards a system of conflict management? An evaluation of the impact of workplace mediation

at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust: Paul Latreille and Richard Saundry, 2015

Conflict and Resolving Individual  Employment Disputes in the Contemporary Workplace

Richard Saundry, Paul Latreille Linda Dickens, Charlie Irvine, Paul Teague, Peter Urwin, and Gemma Wibberley, 2014
Workplace Dispute Resolution and the Management of Individual Conflict — A Thematic Analysis of Five Case Studies: Richard Saundry and Gemma Wibberley, 2014

Mediation and Early Resolution. A Case Study in Conflict Management: Richard Saundry and Gemma Wibberley, 2012

Real-life leaders – closing the knowing-doing gap, London: CIPD 2013


*This role is not the same as the ‘Contact Person’ whom parties to a complaint may contact and who will provide listening support and explain the resolution options but not in any way intervene or advise people what to do.