Implementing Pro-active Systems for Prevention and Early Conflict or Dispute Resolution

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.

The Number One Temptation in the ‘Mediator Role’ and Six Reasons Why Not to Succumb!

There you are, calm, level headed, objective. 8338158 - multiracial business meeting in boardroom, sitting at a table
You’ve helpfully offered to mediate between two employees who’ve clashed. They are at the initial ‘story telling’ stage and you sit composed, with your impartial and non-judgmental hat on.

You are patient, attentive, doing the rapport thing… nodding, kindly eye contact, open body posture and empathic ‘hmms’ at appropriate intervals. You let them ‘vent’ a bit…they need to get it off their chests.

But as each unfolds their side of the story the spark plugs in your brain are firing into action mode. You can see immediately and with unerring clarity what the problem between them is.
Simple and obvious solutions flash into your mind. Yet, you remind yourself it’s not your job to tell them what to do – this is mediation after all. So you let them argue on.
But they just don’t seem to be able to make progress.

You can see the answer so clearly. You have a real hunch what would sort this out in just a few minutes.
Perhaps a little ‘have you thought of …’ question might nudge them in the right direction…
Ah…it’s so tempting to want to jump in and fix it for them.

Sound familiar?

Do you often find yourself in the mediator chair tempted to solution-ise, maybe not quite directing people but definitely leaning towards the ‘would-you-not-try…’ questions?

This is a clear sign that you have fallen in to one of the most common pitfalls that can trip rookie mediators. Staying out of ‘fixing it’ is always the number one challenge identified in reflective learning assignments from my mediation trainees.
But seasoned mediators can falter here too.

It’s the ‘I-Can-Fix-It’ feeling… that gnawing ache to stick your oar in, that frisson, the tingling sensation of having the perfect solution in your head to someone else’s problem… combined with a compelling impulse to impose it on them.

Culturally we are programmed to see problems as something we need to roll our sleeves up and sort out. Many of the roles we occupy at work are ones where we are expected to use our training and expertise in whatever field we work in, to solve problems.

Michael Bungay Stanier in his book ‘The Coaching Habit’ talks about the challenge of staying out of the advice-giving role:

‘You’ve spent years delivering advice and getting promoted and praised for it. You’re seen to be “adding value” and you’ve the added bonus of staying in control of the situation.
On the other hand, when you’re asking questions, you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. That’s called “empowering”). Put like that it doesn’t sound like that good an offer’

So here is a reminder of some of the negative consequences of succumbing to the ‘I-Can-Fix-It’ feeling when you are wearing the Mediator hat:

1.  You fail to unearth what’s really at stake for the parties and trying to broker a deal around positions:

When people are frustrated or upset, they tend to articulate a strong, often defensive-sounding view about what needs to be different – a position. Often what’s really important to them, their ‘interests’ can be hidden from view – even from themselves. So the mediator in fix-it mode may well be coming up with solutions to the wrong problem. You end up falling prey to your own confirmation bias and missing what’s the true underlying issue. For what to do instead, check this earlier post.


2.  You foster dependence instead of autonomy:

Stanier draws on research from Edgar Henry Schein, former professor at MIT Sloan School of Management who has written extensively on the role of helping in organisations. One of the key drivers to engagement and motivation is that people have a sense of choice and autonomy over what they do. Giving people solutions undermines this – it’s like you blow out some of the fire that will light their own motivation to do something. If you provide the answer you inhibit them having to seek it out for themselves. You preclude them having to make a decision for themselves. So the resolution to the conflict is likely to be short-lived because it’s your agreement, not theirs.


3.  You create resistance to the solutions you propose:

Schein points out that jumping in to offer solutions diminishes the status of the other person(s). You are positing yourself as the person who ‘knows’ the answer so they are automatically on a lower status level. This unconsciously creates a barrier between you and them and lead them to resisting the help or advice being offered.  So even if your idea or solution is really the ‘best’ one, you may well have put people off it by being the one to put it on the table.


4.  You undermine parties’ confidence and ability to take responsibility for their own problems:

People in conflict are upset, angry, anxious. When they come for help to a mediator, they have run out of road in terms of their own resources to sort it out.
Your job as the mediator is to point them back to their own inner resilience and ability to effectively manage this situation. Telling them or hinting at solutions that you’ve come up with just reinforces their helplessness. You are giving them fish instead of helping them figure out how to fish themselves. Revolving door mediation is the next stop for them.


5.  You are likely to come across as partial or favouring one side:

One of the pillars underpinning the role of the mediator is that each of the parties trusts that you have their interests at heart. You are not taking sides – either theirs or the other person’s. They trust that you have created a safe and non-judgemental space for them to think and talk this situation through.
If you propose a suggestions or solution, it’s likely to be more acceptable to one side than the other. The less-favoured person will immediately interpret this as you being ‘on the other person’ side’. You have now lost their trust.
Time to pack up and go home once you have lost the connection and trust with either party in the mediator’s chair.


6.  You will feel drained, exhausted and frustrated pretty quickly:

Mediation is a fantastic process and tool. But despite the many benefits it offers people to dialogue and communicate about their issues, they don’t always come to a resolution. There are lots of reasons why – most of which have to do with the mindset the participants are in. The reason is seldom their inability to come up with the enlightening or inspiring suggestions like those you might be putting forward. Taking on the burden of trying to resolve the unresolvable is really hard work.  And it’s not even your job, in the role of a mediator.


So let’s be clear about it.
As the mediator there are many ways you can support people to resolve their issue.

Coming up with the answers for them isn’t on that list.

Your role is to facilitate dialogue, not to give people solutions.

Remember, when you act on the ‘I-Can-Fix-It’ feeling, the only person’s needs getting met in that moment are yours.


Anti-Bullying Policies – Fit for Purpose?

Anti-Bullying Policies. Almost two years ago Maria, a member of a team of ten, was finding it difficult to deal with one of her colleagues Andrea. Maria said she thought Andrea appeared to not value her or take her seriously as a colleague. They had had a number of meetings with their manager, who tried to help them sort it out but to no avail. Following a routine meeting re work issues between Andrea, Maria and another colleague Margaret, Maria felt that both Andrea and Margaret were ganging up against her and felt she had to make a complaint about this.

Maria reached for the only policy document that governs how people interact and get along in the organisation – the ‘anti-bullying’ or euphemistically entitled ‘Dignity at Work’ policy. She made an official complaint about Andrea and Margaret. It took about fourteen months to run the bullying investigation, which also involved evidence-taking from other colleagues as ‘witnesses’. The complaint was not upheld although the investigator did comment at the level of antipathy between Maria and her colleague Andrea. One of the investigation recommendations was ‘mediation’ between the parties. However, when I met with them recently, both Andrea and Margaret are too angry, frustrated as well as very hurt about what they view as a spurious allegation of ‘bullying’ against them to participate meaningfully in a mediation process. So all three continue to work in the same team, barely greeting each other and tension which could be cut with a knife.

Damage to Rebuilding Working Relationship

This is a typical example of many scenarios in which I have been asked to intervene to ‘rebuild relationships’. It is a task that I always liken to closing the barn door after the proverbial horse has bolted. Key challenges in these situations include the amount of time it has taken to investigate as well as the adversarial nature of investigation, both of which polarise the parties’ relationship.

There is however another significant barrier to rebuilding any kind of meaningful working relationships between the parties: Having to overcome the damage done by framing of the situation as an allegation of ‘bullying’ One cannot blame this on an individual who is feeling distressed about a working relationship. After all, the only ‘vehicle’ to deal with workplace conflict of all shapes and sizes in the workplace is a policy that is focused on prevention of this phenomenon known as ‘bullying’.

Language Shapes Reality

While the Health and Safety Authority’s definition of ‘bullying’ makes reference to ‘repeated inappropriate behaviour…undermining…dignity at work’, the commonplace understanding of this term holds much harsher connotations. A typical dictionary definition is ‘…the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others’. Even onomatopoetically, the term is suggestive of behaviour that is quite malevolent and vicious, and not accurate in addressing many of the typical conflict behaviours that can occur where people are in conflict in all workplaces.

How About an Anti-‘Dossing’ Policy?

As an analogy, imagine if there was an ‘Anti-Dossing’ policy and the moment anyone’s workplace performance seemed to fall below expectations, a complaint was launched about them and they then had to prove that they weren’t ‘Dossers’. Of course we wouldn’t countenance such an approach, as well as being unconstructive and contrary to all sorts of positive approaches to people management that current best practice, it is also bordering on derogatory and discriminatory. Yet we tolerate the use of the term ‘bullying’ in a policy that’s used to deal with everything from the relatively rare instances of deliberate and predatory behaviour to all sorts of reactive and ‘normal’ (albeit unwelcome) conflict responses.

Little Benefit to Either Complainant or Accused

Yet in respect to workplace behaviours, the only policy guidance is around ‘anti-bullying’. Forcing the complainant to frame their issues in this way fosters a victim/perpetrator paradigm. In this, the innocent and defenceless complainant is the butt of powerful, targeted, dignity-stripping behaviours ‘perpetrated’ by a nasty and malicious person in the workplace. This seductive narrative reinforces a disempowering identity for the complainant as well as enabling them to avoid taking responsibility for any of their own contribution to the dynamic. Undoubtedly, there are situations where there is a genuine victim and perpetrator but both anecdotal and research evidence indicate that this pertains in the minority of complaints.

Neither is it useful for the person who gets accused of ‘bullying’. A complaint about someone under ‘Dignity at Work’ will be perceived by them as an accusation of ‘being a bully’. This provokes defensiveness and rather than prompting them to perhaps reflect on how they might have contributed, they are more consumed with proving ‘they’re not a bully’. They will also feel unjustly judged and branded which similarly invites a sense of victimhood. In the case cited above, both of those complained about were angry not only at Andrea but also at the ‘system’ because they believe it has facilitated the wrongdoing and doesn’t offer them any way of really clearing their ‘good name’.

While the suggestion of mediation to help them problem-solve and bring a future focus to their difficulties is well-meaning, the bullying–focused complaints policy has greatly limited its prospects of success.

What Could Be Changed?

There is no doubt, there are instances of ‘bullying’ behaviour in the workplace and guidelines to recognise and deal with these need to be in place. However, the overall policy framework needs to be more positively framed. Despite some softer-sounding titles (‘Dignity at Work, ‘Positive Working Environment’) most policies emphasise the negative with long detailed examples of ‘bullying behaviours’ and the impact of ‘bullying’. A more constructive approach would be to build in detailed examples of behaviours that would be desirable as well as information on conflict responses, the dynamics of conflict and tools and tips to help people recognise and deal with such situations.

Policies should focus on supporting people to raise concerns and normalise the fact that working relationships may not always run smoothly. It should also be clear that the term ‘bullying’ refers to behaviours at the high end of the spectrum of ‘unwelcome’.
The term ‘grievance’ and ‘Grievance Policy’ is now frequently used to deal with complaints about terms and conditions as opposed to workplace behaviours. Yet as a relatively neutral and non-threatening term it might better serve as a basis for a complaints framework to address workplace behaviours also.

There is no doubt that people do engage at times in highly inappropriate and bullying behaviours towards one another and workplaces need to guard against this. However blanket application of the ‘bullying’ term to every ‘conflict’ at work is a surefire way to escalate rather than improve working relationships.

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.

Which way do you see it? How to improve perspective-taking in negotiations or ‘difficult’ conversation

Here’s a question: what key skill will improve the outcomes of all types of negotiation whether you are buying a car or trying to sort a contentious issue at work?

You might think it’s getting all your arguments clear and well-rehearsed and then sticking hard by them. Yes, it’s good to be clear on your own point of view. But surprisingly, research shows that better outcomes will result from negotiations for those with a greater capacity for what’s termed ‘perspective-taking’: seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view.

What is ‘perspective-taking’ and why is it effective?

According to researchers Galinsky et al, 2006, perspective-taking is the ability to consider the world from another person’s viewpoint and anticipate or imagine the emotions, perceptions and motivation of another.
In their research, participants engaged in various negotiation processes – one was in the sale of a gas station, the other between job recruiter and candidate. One group of participants were primed to perspective-take by being told to try and understand what the other side was thinking, what their interests and purposes were. A control group were invited to simply focus on their own role.
Results: the perspective-taking group achieved better outcomes both for themselves and in terms of each side being satisfied with the outcome of the negotiation. “Perspective takers achieved the highest level of economic efficiency, without sacrificing their own material gains” (Galinsky et al., 2008)

As a one of the four Active Constructive skills identified in the Conflict Dynamics Profile, perspective-taking can encompass a number of associated behaviours:

  • Trying to understand how things look from that person’s perspective, putting oneself in their ‘shoes’
  • Asking questions to invite the other person to explain the reasons behind their views
  • Acknowledging the other person’s viewpoint
  • Communicating to them that they understand their perspective

The benefits include gaining increased knowledge about the situation or about other interpretations of the situation. This in turn will open up more options that can be explored and that would make for more mutually agreed solutions. Most importantly, perspective taking also has the effect of making the other person feel you are taking his or her concerns seriously and leads to them feeling more understood and acknowledged.

Perspective-taking and empathy

Interestingly, Galinsky et al (2006) differentiate between perspective-taking (trying to imagine what the other person is thinking) and empathy (trying to imagine what the other person is feeling). They conclude from their studies that the former will produce better outcomes than the latter, particularly in competitive or strategic negotiations. Too much empathy for one’s partner negatively impacted on the individual gains in one of studies. However they postulate that empathy does have a key role in situations where emotions might be running high or where the negotiating partners have a long-term relationship.

What reduces our capacity to perspective-take?

Yet it can be difficult to engage in this kind of behaviour. In particular, if a situation causes us to be annoyed, frustrated or angry with someone, the ensuing physiological stress response has the effect of narrowing our focus. We start to think more about self-survival. Our cognitive capacities to see for example the ‘bigger picture’ are therefore reduced.

It also diminishes our willingness to want to explore what the other person’s viewpoint. For this reason, when I’m coaching people in conflict, I always preface this question by telling them that it’s for their own benefit. Taking the time to explore and try to understand the other person’s ‘side of the story’ will enhance their own decision-making.

Another interesting finding from the research is that people in a stronger power position have a lower ability to understand how others see, think, and feel. In a series of studies conducted by Galinsky et al, 2006, (one of which is described below), they concluded that “power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point…[and is an] …impediment to empathy”. They postulate is that power is associated with unrestrained pursuit of goals and can lead to viewing others in terms of qualities that will help achieve their own goals and inhibit their consideration of the ‘humanity’ of others (their concerns, emotions and individuality).

You can try this simple test with a colleague or a friend. Ask them first with their dominant hand to snap their fingers five times. Then with the same hand, as quickly as they can, draw a capital E on their forehead. They will either draw it like the picture in the left, so that you can read it and indicating perspective-taking or on the right, demonstrating a self-oriented direction, showing a lower tendency to adopt another person’s perspective. So paradoxically, the more we are anchored in our own sense of power, the less effective our influencing and negotiating powers will be.

How to improve perspective-taking skills:

  1. Approach the conversation with a curiosity stance – “I wonder what is motivating them to think/act like this”
  2. Use open questions to draw out underlying interests and needs beneath positions
  3. Reflect on your own situation and see what weaknesses you can identify.
  4. Visualise yourself in the other person’s place. Try to imagine what the other person is thinking, what might be motivating them, what might be important to them.
  5. It can be useful also to try and consider what they might be feeling although Galinsky’s research above found empathy (trying to imagine the other’s feelings as opposed to their thinking) can reduce one’s own individual gains from a negotiation.
  6. Paraphrase or summarise back to them what you think it is they are trying to communicate
  7. Demonstrate your intentions to perspective-take by acknowledging (not agreeing) with their viewpoint.

While it might not be our immediate tendency, particularly in a contentious conversation, the research is unequivocal on the benefits of trying to understand the ‘other side of the story’.

In the words of Henry Ford “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own….. “


Why It Pays to Get Inside the Head of Your Opponent: Galinsky, Maddux, Gilin, White, Psychological Science, 2008.

Power and Perspectives Not Taken: Galinsky, Magee, Inesi & Gruenfeld, Psychological Science, Vol 17, No. 12, 2006.


Don’t battle over positions – just get to the heart of what’s at stake – real needs and interests!

One of the most useful models with which to view and work with any kind of negotiation or potential conflict situation is the ‘Positions-Interests/Needs’ Iceberg. Being able to facilitate people instead to identify and articulate what their underlying needs and interests is an essential tool in a conflict resolving toolkit.

Positions vs. Interests – An Example

A conflict begins when people start to believe something important to them e.g. their needs or concerns are in some way under threat. As a way of protecting these they come up with ideas and views as to how best this can be managed – a firm stand on what needs to happen from their point of view. Such a pre-conceived solution is a ‘position’, it tends to be the public face that is articulated to defend what’s really at stake their ‘interests’ – often hidden from view. Indeed at times, we don’t really know ourselves what our true needs and interests.

Suppose two employees are working on a joint project. Some differences in views start to emerge about various aspects of the project which is causing tension. They arrange a meeting to discuss these. Their mounting frustrations however lead them into the trap of positional thinking and arguing.

“This project is moving too fast…the deadlines have to be moved forward or else I’m just not on board anymore” countered with:

“But we can’t move the deadline forward – what’s that going to cost us in extra client fees? We all have to just clear our diaries and concentrate on this”

And another round:

“Ah that’s mad…how can I just clear all my other work and just focus on this one project – that’s completely unrealistic. I see no other option but to pull back at this point”

“Well I have been warning you all along about the fact that this deadline is looming and I don’t think you’ve been prioritising it enough…”

And so the story goes, each one digging themselves deeper into their positions and moving further away from finding workable solutions.

Here’s an example of what didn’t get said in the interaction above:

“I’m under huge pressure with this project and the some other deadlines and am really afraid that I won’t get my piece finished on time and I hate letting people down”

“I’m very concerned about how the client will react if we don’t finish on time. At the moment I’m finding myself doing nothing else but this and am worried about other stuff I’m leaving undone”

The Positions-Interests Iceberg

Working on the Iceberg analogy, positions are on the surface: each side’s fixed views and opinions on how they think the presenting issue should be resolved: “We must do this or else…” (- includes an implied or actual threat helping to copper fasten the argument!).

This results in:

  • Lack of listening to each other making each of them more irritated because it just sends a ‘my way or the high-way’ message
  • The discussion moving into a competitive debate with each one seeking to ‘win’ on the strength and perhaps vehemence of their argument.
  • The problem becoming personalised, with each one seeing the other person as a block in having their best interests served
  • Loss of focus on really figuring out how to sort the situation

Interests/needs are what are under the water line: what really matters to them and why that matters to them. “I’m really worried about… because…”

Facilitating each other to talk about underlying needs and interests means:

  • They listen to each other and take on board what is said and both remain engaged in the discussion and trying to sort it out
  • They realise that each of them want or need much the same thing: to be able to get all their workload covered and get the project done – ideally for the client on time and in budget.
  • This increases their openness to one another and makes them more disposed to jointly trying to figure out a solution (two heads being better than one).
  • They are no longer trying to ‘win’ over each other and instead more amenable to stretching themselves so as to make the joint project work and they both ‘win’ against the problem.

Helping people articulate and share with one another their key interests and needs is an essential basis for problem-solving and making decisions.

Getting people focused on what’s really important and why, circumvents the hardlining of positions and means they are more willing to work together towards a common end.

Getting People Out of Positions:

So how do we move a person from positional arguing on the tip of the iceberg to hearing what’s really at stake for them underneath:

  • Recognise that what sounds like an ultimatum or a defensive stance is just the tip of the iceberg. In particular, when we are engaged in the discussion ourselves, this can be the hardest part. It requires us to pull in our horns and resist the urge to bat back at them with our own ‘position’
  • Use questions and active listening to help dig out what the real needs and interests are underneath. For example:

‘Say more about what’s at stake for you in this?’
‘Sounds like you are a bit fed up with it all…what aspect of it is most important to you?’
‘What is it about the deadline/client/work etc. that makes it a problem for you?’ ‘What’s your priority about…?’

  • Depending on the context and level of rapport you can build with someone, you might try some questions that get to deeper levels of interests and needs e.g.

‘What important values are being infringed here for you?’
‘Am I picking up from you a sense of feeling powerless about your role in the project and feeling that what’s most important is to take a firm stand?’

  • So in the example above, some more effective responses that would have moved the focus onto each other’s interests might have been:

“This project is moving too fast…the deadlines have to be moved forward or else I’m just not on board anymore”

“Sounds like you are feeling under a lot of pressure with it, yes I am too. But tell me a bit more about what’s going on for you with it”

“But we can’t move the deadline forward – what’s that going to cost us in extra client fees? We all have to just clear our diaries and concentrate on this”

“So you’re really concerned about the extra client fees… is it that this cost will be too high or is it having to even let the client down that you think is most worrying?

Next time you are faced with what feels like a pushy positional stance, first of all take a deep breath. Then rather than batting back, take the time to stop and reflect: How can you best understand and share with one another the needs and interests beneath the iceberg rather than the tit-for-tat of surface positions.

How Conflict Competent Are Staff in Your Organisation?

When I ask people in training courses and workshops to cite some images or associations they have with the concept of ‘conflict’, I usually get a whole list of negatives (angry, war, hate, stress…) and very few positives. ‘I don’t like conflict’ is a common refrain, so I do my best to avoid it’. Yet if we think about it, how realistic is it to want to avoid all potential conflict situations?

What is conflict after all but a situation where people have different viewpoints, with a bit of emotional attachment thrown in. So whether the project should be done my way or yours could cause conflict, less likely are diverse views as to which hobbies or wine we prefer. In every workplace, where there are on-going and interdependent relationships with a variety of viewpoints on how and what should be done, conflict is inevitable.

If we don’t view conflict as inevitable, then ask yourself – should most staff/managers be able to do any of the following?

  • Raise issues with a team member or a direct report that could be potentially contentious?
  • Hold others accountable for work tasks agreed and set?
  • Give constructive feedback?
  • Negotiate and influence others with integrity and respect?
  • Be able to integrate a variety of perspectives and viewpoints in problem-solving discussions?
  • Able to use probing questions to get at the essence of what’s being communicated by another person?
  • Be able to play the ball rather than the ‘man’/’woman’ when a disagreement arises

The above list of skills occur daily in many people’s jobs – certainly for those at management level. They also encompass core skills and knowledge in the area of ‘conflict management’.
Most management/leadership courses offer one day or one module on ‘conflict management’ but it’s frequently not considered a core organisational value or competency, to be continuously improved and fostered for all staff.

In order to be able to effectively engage with people around issues that need to be talked about, it’s essential to have ongoing support and review of a measurable set of ‘managing conflict’ competencies, just like any other essential components of the job.

Why it’s so important:

In a 2008 CIPD survey of 660 HR practitioners, almost half found they have to manage conflict at work ‘frequently or continually’, taking on average almost 4 hours per week. Yet almost a third of companies provide no training for staff in this area. Similarly a 2013 CIPD report cited managing difficult conversations to be ‘the most frequent skill gap for front-line supervisors by HR professionals’.

There is a significant body of research in recent years (IBEC, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development etc.) citing the importance of ensuring line managers are conflict competent.

As Thomas Crumm (1987) states ‘It’s not whether you have conflict in your life, it’s what you do with it that conflict that makes a difference’. Avoiding the high costs of destructive conflict means ensuring staff and managers have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to engage with and manage the inevitable conflicts that arise in every workplace.

Read more about core Conflict Competencies for Managers and Leaders here

Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.

Check out some more resources here or download the Complimentary Guide in the sidebar.

Mediating Workplace Conflict – Staying Fair and Impartial

A question I am frequently asked in training people in mediation and conflict resolution skills is the challenge as a third party mediator/facilitator to remain neutral and impartial. This tends to get challenged on two fronts. There is neutrality to the parties and the issues they bring – not getting drawn into viewing one side as more ‘reasonable’ or ‘right’ than the other. The other temptation is to think you know what’s best and want to impose a particular solution thus undermining the self-determination principle of mediation.

Here are a few ideas that will help you to keep an even keel:

  • Get into a neutral mindset. Remind yourself that any hint of perceived partiality to one side undermines your trust and rapport with the other and ultimately your ability to effectively implement your role. Third party impartiality is a core building block of successful conflict resolution.
  • Rather than seeing yourself as a fixer/problem-solver, see your role as one of providing parties with space, empathy to help them move forward in how they are thinking and emotionally dealing with a difficult issue. Your challenge is to use questions and interventions that develop insights and awareness and build parties own capacity to problem-solve.
  • In preparing parties to mediate, be very clear about your role – to facilitate them to sort the situation out for themselves. In particular, where you wear a number of different hats, make sure they are clear in terms of their expectations of you i.e. that you are not there to make a judgement or tell them what to do. During the session, be balanced and fair in the amount of speaking time and attention that each person gets.
  • A helpful analogy is that of being a mirror or ‘translator’ for the parties. Use your active listening skills to help to clarify and refine what each is saying, identify important pieces like concerns and needs if they aren’t good at conveying these themselves. ‘Let me clarify John, you mentioned you have a difficulty with some aspects of the meeting, in particular Tom’s tone was what upset you most…have I got that right?’
  • If you feel it’s important to communicate the impact of one party’s actions/behaviours on another, remember it’s not your job to do it. However, you can ask the other person to explain how they perceived the behaviour and what it was about it that impacted on them so strongly. ‘You said you were very annoyed and frustrated when she didn’t answer any of your emails – what was it about this that bothered you? What assumptions did you make about why she didn’t respond to you?
  • When both parties are together, avoid (tempting!) questions like ‘Can you now acknowledge John that Tom was very hurt by your actions’ or ‘Can you see how your behaviour might have impacted on Tom’. Instead, empathise with and reflect back to Tom around his upset and then invite John to comment in a neutral tone ‘What are your thoughts on what Tom has just shared…?’
  • Try to avoid finger-wagging around ‘mis’behaviour by parties in the session. Instead, empathise with the person around their frustration, neutrally describe the behaviour and explain what would work better for you. ‘I can see you are feeling very frustrated/annoyed by what you are hearing Jane and feel the need to speak in a louder tone…but I find it easier to understand and listen to you when you speak more slowly and calmly..’
  • Develop self-awareness around what behaviours in others tend to trigger you. When you are feeling particularly challenged by someone’s position, meet with them on a one-to-one and share your concerns with a view to inviting them to help you understand them better. ‘I see that you have a very different view about time-keeping to Tom’s – I a little challenged myself in how you see this – can you help me understand how you view the need to meet the deadlines set for the project?’ Know also what situations trigger you beyond being able to stay neutral or impartial and pass on these.
  • Develop a repertoire of phrases that convey neutrality and impartiality:

‘It sounds like you are saying….’
‘What was it about John’s behaviour that you found difficult/didn’t work for you?’
‘Your perception seems to be….’
‘The way you see it…’
‘From what you have said, what I’m picking up is…’
‘So in summary what’s really important to you in this situation is for John to interact with you in a way that feels respectful to you…?’

  • While it can be a challenge to put aside our own views and prejudices when working with people in conflict, it is true gift for them. They get to have their ‘story’ heard, acknowledged and dealt with by someone who neither sides with nor judges them, rather accepts them exactly as they are. They are then free to let go and move forward in a way that best meets their own true needs and interests.

Bullying and Harassment – Informal Support from Contact Persons

Bullying and harassment in the workplace continue to be one of the most challenging forms of interpersonal difficulties that arise in the workplace. As part of an organisation’s bullying prevention policy, the Health and Safety Authority Code of Practice (2007) in Ireland recommends that employers should name a ‘Contact Person’, whose role is to ‘listen and advise about complaints of bullying at work and explain the procedures in place to resolve it’ (Section 5.3).

How might an organisation go about incorporating this recommendation in their anti-bullying and harassment policy and what benefits might it have?

The Contact Person role is usually defined as providing emotional support and information in a confidential, non-judgmental and off-the-record to any member of staff who ‘believes that he or she is being treated in a bullying manner’. It can also be a support to someone who has been subject to a complaint of bullying or harassment.

Key tasks of the role usually include:

  • Active listening and providing supportive empathy:
    This is one of the key tasks of the role. Allowing the person to speak about their experiences and feel heard can be therapeutic in itself and gives them a feeling of being accepted and not judged. Speaking about their experience also helps a person to clarify and organize their thoughts. It is an essential pre-cursor to looking at options and possible solutions and making decisions for action.
  • Explore options and consequences of these:
    The Contact Person uses open questions to help the person think through their options and what actions they might take. They will outline and explain the procedures available to them in the Bullying Prevention and Harassment/Sexual Harassment Complaint Procedures and help them evaluate the implications of any choices they might make.
  • Empower/coach towards next step:
    This is where the Contact Person uses basic coaching questions to help the employee take the next step. It also involves checking back with them to ensure that they are on track with whatever actions they planned to take. Recruitment of Contact Persons is usually by approaching a small cadre of people who have already demonstrated skills or interest in support roles e.g. trades union officials, health and safety officials, persons with ‘good’ people skills, counsellors, human resources personnel. Some organisations ‘advertise’ the role to all employees and use an interview process to then select the most suitable for the role. A short one or two day training is usually provided.

Meetings between the Contact Person and the person seeking support should normally take place during normal working hours and in a suitable location where privacy can be assured. The Contact Person will not retain any notes or records of these discussions. No more than 3-4 sessions with any one individual should ever be needed. More than this could mean the Contact Person is being drawn into a counselling relationship.


  • It gives people access to a confidential compassionate, objective and supportive listener whom they can talk through their difficulties and get objective information without having to raise the matter at a more official level such as speaking to a manager or HR
  • Getting support with a complaint or conflict situation at an early stage increases the chances of the matter getting resolved rather than ending up in an adversarial and protracted investigation process
  • It is a clear demonstration of an organisation’s commitment to a preventing and pro-actively addressing workplace bullying.


  • The Contact Persons need to be trained and facilitated to time away from their normal work tasks in order to provide support to those seeking their help
  • When introducing the Contact Person option, there needs to be an awareness-raising programme to make staff aware of the option of accessing a Contact Person as well the limits of their role
  • The limitations of the role could be a drawback. The Contact Person role cited in the Industrial Relations Act 1990 Code of Practice 2002 also involved approaching the person complained against and seeking to resolve the issue in an informal low-key manner. In Northern Ireland, a similar role Harassment Advisor still carries out this task. Being able to implement a mini-mediation intervention informally and confidentially at an early stage can nip situations in the bud and avoid greater levels of stress and upset for all involved.

Contact us for more information or check out our training courses for Contact Persons – download Course Programme

Workplace Mediation Awards

Mediation as a form of prevention and management of conflict and disputes in the workplace is becoming more widely used. In recognition of this the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland are presenting a number of mediation awards at the upcoming Mediators’ Institute of Ireland Annual Conference. The aim is to acknowledge and support those organisations – both large and small – who are striving towards best practice in this area. There are 6 categories for entry, depending on the size of the company/organisation or whether it is public, private or voluntary sector. This is a wonderful initiative by the MII and serves to raise the profile of mediation and also, more importantly highlight how effective this process can be in resolving conflict in a much less stressful and costly way for both organisation and individuals involved.

Criteria for the award include:

  • Whether mediation is in HR policies and procedures (or other procedures e.g. contracts, a Mediation pledge etc.)
  • Level of awareness raising and promotion of mediation
  • Evaluation of the effectiveness of the promotion of Mediation in your organisation
  • Use of mediation for Interpersonal disputes, Change management, Dignity and Respect in the Workplace, Contract/Commercial disputes, Complaints Management.

To be in with a chance to win an award, all that needs to happen is to download and complete an entry form from the MII website.