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

Disagreement on Goals?

You probably have recently completed a performance review with all your team members, or maybe it’s still on your ToDo list. Either way, the task of planning work for the coming year is now on the horizon. So how do you have a discussion with the employee where you are anticipating they might be resistant to the goals or direction that is required from them?
Prepare in advance by:

  • Getting crystal clear on what the intention or reasons around these are and how this fits into the overall aims/strategy of the organisation. If you are unclear or lack belief yourself, as to why or what needs to be done then it will be very difficult to communicate this to someone else in a credible way.
  • Put yourself in the employee’s shoes in a way that you get a real sense of what such a change might mean for them. The more insight you have as to how they might perceive and feel about it, the better you will be able to listen to this in a way that doesn’t trigger frustration or defensiveness on your part. You need to be able to be objective and open rather than reactive during the meeting.

Listening rather than talking
State what needs to happen – your expectations, the rationale for this in a friendly and informal way and then invite their views on it.

Don’t get into a long-winded lecture type explanation, which while is tempting (wanting to justify and persuade) but will serve only to shut down the person.
Focus on what the key essentials are in terms of deliverables and why they are important. Leave as much room as possible for the employee to explore the ‘how’
Tease out resistance

In terms of a gap between each of your viewpoints, the main focus needs to be on ensuring you bring out, acknowledge and explore in an honest way what their resistance might be about.

You need to ask heir views in way that gets across your willingness to hear what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with it.

With someone who is hesitant, you might even prompt them by saying ‘I can appreciate this isn’t what you were expecting and I’d like to hear what you think about this’.

Then acknowledge this and demonstrate empathy with their concerns – real, not fake ‘I-read-this-in-a-management-manual’ empathy.

Explore and empathise

Exploring in detail what their concerns are about is a crucial step. Again, the temptation is to cut to the chase and simply respond by saying ‘well there is no choice, this has to happen’.

That’s the reality, sure and even the employee knows that, but in spending time talking through with the person what their genuine concerns and anxieties are about you accomplish a number of things:

  • You demonstrate your genuine support and interest in them and the challenges of their job
  • In doing this, you build trust and willingness on their part to engage with you
  • You get to hear in more detail about the reality and challenges that you may not even have been aware of e.g. glitches elsewhere in the system, lack of knowledge and be able to offer support, advice or other resources in helping resolve these
  • You allow them to vent, which is an important step in moving past the emotional side (resentment, frustration, irritation) of resistance.

Help them see it from your viewpoint

Now you outline your requirements, explaining what’s important to you/the business and why. Try to be as open and honest as you can in terms of what your key concerns are, the underlying thinking and needs that are behind what you would like to achieve.

Help them also to see benefits for them in terms of the goal you are setting, e.g. “You have said it’s important to you that you build your skills in X area – this will give you an opportunity to…”

Point out any areas of common ground that both of you might have e.g. ‘Tom you are concerned that this will mean you have less time to concentrate on your report writing. That’s a concern for me also so we let’s take a closer look at how that can best be managed’

Refer back to the other concerns they outlined and say you are open to seeing how best you can both address these.

Work together to find solutions

Once all the concerns on both your and their side are fully identified and explored you then move into a collaborative, problem-solving focus.

The essential question is ‘given the concerns they have and the needs that the business/department has, how best might this goal be achieved.

The aim of this question is not so much to get into micro-management of the detail but more to identify ways to overcome barriers to getting there.

Ensure you have S.M.A.R.T. outcomes

Part of this action-oriented stage also involves pinning down some criteria around what successfully achieving this goal will look like.

Again, go back to questions and reflective listening to help engage them in shaping as much as possible the detail around this.

Try and formulate outcomes that are Specific, Measured, Timebound etc.

Long term pay off

Effective goal setting can be a delicate dance of understanding, communicating and agreeing. Done without skilful planning and careful thought it can be a challenging and energy sapping process.

However done well it will pay dividends in terms of employee motivation and deliverables for your team and organisation.

In addition it will make the next end of year appraisal a more straightforward, rewarding and even enjoyable process.

Cognitive Vs. Affective Conflict

‘Conflict is the stuff of life, it’s what we do with it that makes the difference’ (Crumm, 1997). These words are from a book entitled ‘The Magic of Conflict’ – for most people an oxymoron. Most of us experience conflict at work or in our home lives as anything but magical or positive. For the great majority of us, the thought of conflict and disagreements tend to be something we avoid rather than embrace.
Yet, handled properly, ‘conflict’ can frequently be a useful and positive occurence – for example, the creativeness that emerges from the synergy of differing views – which is the basic premise behind team versus individual approaches to solving problems.

If I was to ask any one of you ‘do you think that you can avoid conflicts in your workplace, family life, community etc.’ the answer would probably be a resounding ‘no’. So there is no point in thinking you can have a life free of disagreements or difficult conversations. A more useful framework is to see conflict as having the potential to go down one of two routes or avenues.

Task-focused or cognitive conflict

This is where people focus on the tasks or issues and debate and thrash these out and come to a creative solution. The parties might argue and exchange views vigorously yet there is two-way communication and an openness to hearing each other. The goal is to find the best possible solution rather than to win the argument. Alternative perspectives are seen as valuable rather than threatening.

Relationship or affective conflict

This is where the differences become ‘personal’, where people get into blaming modes and unhelpful behaviours. The mindset moves from ‘we have a problem’ to ‘you are the problem’. Opposition is seen as something to be thwarted rather than explored. Negative emotions prevail and the relationship suffers. The goal becomes winning for its own sake rather than the best possible solution.

Cognitive vs. Affective

Most situations involving ‘apparently incompatible differences’ – conflict in other words – has the potential to move in one of these two directions. The deciding factor as to which way they go lies mainly in the behaviours and approaches taken by the people involved.

The recent debacle that took place between the (former) junior and senior ministers in the Irish government for health is a perfect illustration of this. On the face of it, one would imagine that the different opinions around how the budget for primary care should be divided would fit into the realms of a task-focused conflict: lots of scope for robust debate and creative solution-building. Yet, instead of them working constructively to achieve the best possible solution in terms of patient services, it became personal, adversarial and a ‘win-lose’ paradigm. One view prevailed, the other seemed to be discarded and the working relationship destroyed. One might argue that somebody had to make the final call – absolutely – but a key contributer to good quality decision-making is the consideration of a wide variety of views.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. There is a wide body of knowledge on effective ways of behaving and responding to conflict to ensure it stays task- rather than relationship-focused. And, it’s not rocket science. Yet as the above example illustrates, even people who appear to have high levels of ability, knowledge and education still might not get it. As leaders, in my view, it is imperative that they should. So here goes: Conflict Coaching sessions for Ministers Reilly and Shortall on the house…

Download our free ebook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Navigate Difficult Conversations for Leaders and Managers 

Got a Difficult Conversation? Try the Indian Talking Stick

Tool for difficult conversations

One of the tools use to help people effectively negotiate a difficult conversation is known as the Indian Talking Stick.
Stephen Covey describes the Indian Talking stick as one of the most powerful communication tools he has used. Stemming from American Indian culture it has been used for centuries to build understanding and resolve differences respectfully and effectively.

How it works to improve conversations 

The idea is that only the person holding the stick gets to make their point and they continue to speak on this point until they feel they have been understood. The other person(s) are only permitted to speak in so far as they need to clarify or reflect back in order to demonstrate that they have understood the speaker.
Once the speaker feels that his/her point has been understood, then they have to pass the stick to the next person and equally facilitate them to make their point, until they are satisfied their point has been understood. Of course you don’t have to use an Indian Talking Stick, any object will do that the speaker can hold and then pass on.

So a couple of weeks ago, in the middle of an escalating argument during a long car journey I decided to try this with my two daughters and myself (I was party to the argument too!). Grabbing the nearest stick-like object (a bicycle pump!) I suggested we try this exercise in order to help us have a more effective conversation. One of the girls was nominated to go first and holding the ‘Stick’ make her point. It took a few minutes to get used to it because the immediate tendency was to respond and react back to the point that she was making. So for example she would say ‘It’s not fair that you got to go first because you were first the last time’ , rather than responding with ‘Oh no I wasn’t’ or ‘Well I think it’s fair’ we would have to instead say something like ‘So you feel it was unfair that we didn’t take turns in going first’.

Using this tool for difficult conversations 

Now you might think reading this, that’s all a bit simplistic, merely repeating back to the person what they’ve just said. But when you try to practice it, it’s much trickier.
Not only have you to try to understand what the speaker says but you have to also demonstrate to them that you understand it. You therefore need to move completely away from a focus on your point and concentrate on them. Instead of rebuffing what they are saying, you find yourself trying to capture its essence.

Having to switch your energy into thinking ‘what is it she is really trying to say’ and ‘how can I get across to her that I get what she’s saying’ caused a real shift in the dynamic between the girls. We moved from competing to trying to co-operate. That’s because each of those listening knew they wouldn’t get to hold the stick and have their turn speaking until the current speaker felt truly understood.

It was interesting also that I noticed once each of the girls felt she had truly been listened to, it seemed to disipate a lot of the frustration and anger that had built up. It also helped to clarify their thoughts, for example realising that it wasn’t about turn-taking, rather she had simply wanted to be the first in this particular situation.

As Covey states, “remember, to understand does not mean to agree with. It just means to be able to see with the other person’s eyes, heart, mind and spirit. One of the deepest needs of the human soul is to be understood. Once that need is met, the personal focus can shift to interdependent problem solving” (The 8th Habit, pp. 198)

So the next time you find yourself sorting out a squabble, just reach for the ‘Stick’!…

Download our free eBook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Navigate Difficult Conversations for Leaders and Managers’

Setting up an Internal Mediation Progamme

The last post focused on how organisations can make the benefits of mediation more available and accessible by establishing an internal panel of mediators. Let us look now at some key considerations in this process.

1. Initial needs assessment – carrying out a conflict audit of the organisation in order to assess how conflict currently impacts people, productivity and profits. This gives a clear benchmark to do a costs/benefits analysis as to whether such a panel is in the first place warranted. It also provides a basis for future evaluation of an internal mediation service.

2. Ensuring there is a good understanding of, and openness to, the process of mediation and the benefits of having an internal mediation service, from key stakeholders – senior management, unions/employee representatives, human resources department, health and safety representatives championing and promoting such a service.

3. Mediator Selection Process: There are a number of options here for example, candidates can be nominated by key stakeholders or the role can be advertised internally – ideally there would be some awareness raising about mediation and conflict management prior to this to help potential candidates make an informed choice as to whether this role would fit for them.

4. Training of Mediators: Ensure that mediators’ training conforms to recognised accreditation standards such as the Certified Mediation level with the Mediators’ Insititute of Ireland

5. Access to the Mediation service: Develop clear procedures around how staff and managers can avail of this service, information leaflets, protocols around key mediation principles such as confidentiality, impartiality of mediator.

6. Underpinned by policies and procedures: Ensuring that there are supportive and complementary policies and procedures in place underpinning the use of mediation to resolve disputes. A policy document around terms of reference for the in-house mediation programme would also need to be developed.

7. Designated champion: Consideration of the need for a designated co-ordinator and steering committee to champion and drive the programme within the organisation

8. Adequate resourcing: Ensuring that the organisation is prepared to resource the programme, which in addition to set-up costs will involve ongoing costs in relation making the Mediators available to conduct mediations during their working week as well as time for ongoing support and training for the team

9. Promotion of the mediation service: Consideration of how the mediation service will be promoted – the development of information booklets and guidance and dissemination of this throughout all levels of the organisation

10. Supportive Continuing Professional Development: Setting up a framework that would ensure mediators have access to supervision/mentoring as structured further training opportunities

11. Evaluation: Establishing in advance the framework for evaluation of the mediation service.

If you would like to know more about establishing an internal mediation programme in your organisation, please email us at

Making Mediation More Available in Your Organisation

There are numerous statistics on the high costs of workplace conflict to organisations, due in no small part to the significant costs of what one could term ‘formal’ interventions being used. By this we mean rights-based interventions such as investigations and other litigious processes such as the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

In an absence of procedures which take a more interest-based approach, conflicts end up getting channelled down this expensive, time-consuming and not often very helpful route. An interest-based approach is one where the parties are facilitated to focus on how best they can have their concerns and needs mutually satisfied as opposed to defending positional stances.

Mediation is one such process and nowadays more and more organisations are starting to make this available as a means of resolving disputes. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development cite the strong business case for mediation as well as other benefits such as improved relationships between employees and reduced levels of workplace stress. A recent CIPD report highlighted a level of 82.8% of public sector employers reporting that they use mediation.

So how might organisations go about making mediation more mainstream and increase the level of understanding and use of this very effective tool?

Establishing a panel of internal mediators to resolve disputes as they arise is an increasing recent trend in this area. For example, the Health Services Executive has a very well developed internal mediation panel here in Ireland.

In terms of the private sector, the well-known high street retailer Topshop in the UK cite savings of £80,000 with an internal mediation programme. Advantages of having an internal mediation service are that it can be more immediate and certainly more cost effective than bringing in an external mediation provider.

But aside from this, establishing an internal mediation programme also has the potential to set in motion a culture change in how an organisation deals with disputes. It introduces to the organisation in a very concrete way a ‘mediation mind-set’ which can have positive consequences far beyond getting Mary and Tom’s dispute resolved. It means in a core cadre of staff understand, practice and champion an approach that promotes and models constructive listening and problem-solving. This can only have positive ripple effects for both the formal and informal culture in the organisation.

Please get in touch if you would like to hear more about how to go about establishing an internal mediation programme in your organisation or check out upcoming blog posts.

Leitrim Mediation Project – Cross-Border Visit

As part of the recent training course for participants on the Leitrim Mediation Training project, a cross-border visit has taken place with one of the most established and best known mediation projects in Ireland – Mediation Northern Ireland (MNI). This project has been funded by the PEACE III Programme through the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund managed for the Special EU Programmes Body by Leitrim County Council on behalf of County Leitrim Peace III Partnership.

Field Trip Belfast – Leitrim Mediation

Located in the heart of Belfast, MNI is a mediation development organisation which works to support reconciliation and community cohesion and uses mediative practice to build capacity for change among individuals and communities and promote sustainable peace building. The trip commenced with an extremely informative presentation of Belfast as the ‘divided city’ which gave an overview of how the social and demographic profile of the people has evolved in the wake of the peace process. The almost three-fold increase in the number of Peace Walls in recent years has is a clear illustration of how much of the resolution consists of separate but peaceful co-existence rather than any significant level of integration and relationship building between the two sides.

We took a tour then of some of the Peace Walls and mural works of art and got some insight into the role of symbolism and insignia as markers of identity and the significance of claiming and maintaining this identity for the two communities. However, the work of building peace is ongoing and much of Mediation Northern Ireland’s focus is on using mediative practices to address the conflict at cultural and structural levels in Northern Ireland rather than simply mediating individual disputes.

This field trip had been organized as a final event over the course of the training run by Consensus Mediation. The course which ran from November 2011 and has just been completed. It has aimed to give participants the required level of generic skills, knowledge and attitudes to enable them to successfully qualify at Certified level with the Mediator’s Institute of Ireland.

Key content included knowledge of mediation theory, principles, practice, styles and methods, exploring participants own styles and approaches to dealing with conflict, acquiring a theoretical understanding of conflict, managing conflict and principles of conflict resolution, an awareness of the external context of mediation as well of course, as developing effective skills, knowledge and attitudes in mediation to meet the certified assessment requirements. Models of good practice of peace building and mediation in this area were also explored.

Participants had an opportunity to practice skills in simulated role plays and the course assessment consisted of a videoed role play of each individual mediating a case for an hour. Following successful completion, trainees are now eligible to apply for a Certificate to Practice as a mediator issued by the MII, which also has a comprehensive Code of Ethics that Mediators are required to follow.

It is now hoped that the group of trained Mediators in Leitrim can work towards implementing the use of mediation to build the capacity of communities in Co Leitrim to improve and develop more positive relationships and empower people to deal with conflict more creatively.

How Mediators can Support Parties in Decision-Making

I attended the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland Annual Conference in Dublin last weekend and what a great event it was with such a wide range of interesting speakers, workshops to stimulate one’s thinking. One of the speakers was a very experienced commercial mediator Bill Marsh from the U.K., whose workshop focused on how Mediators can help parties in a conflict look in a realistic and rational way at their choices in how to deal with the conflict they are in. One of the pieces that stayed with me from the workshop were two questions that he sometimes uses to help people think through their decision-making.

The first question is: ‘What’s driving your decision-making?’ This really is such a fundamental question because in so many cases we either make decisions so quickly that they tend to be reactive or we make them but haven’t really reflected on what it is motivating us to make this decision. So are we doing something because we are angry? Are we trying to ‘ get back’ at someone? Are we acting on instinct? Are we getting carried away with something? I am not suggesting of course that these reasons are wrong or that there should be other reasons behind why we decide things. Some people prefer to act on gut instinct and aren’t drawn towards logical reasoning. But at least, we should be aware, that this is what’s driving how we make this decision.

The second question is: “What would you like to be influencing how you make this decision?” So are you happy about the fact that you are allowing perhaps your emotions about a situation to guide you rather than any sort of rational arguments. Of course the other key factor in this is that you are able to sit back and reflect on this. At times, I’ve seen parties make decisions in mediation that, while they were able to support them with very logical-sounding arguments, it really was difficult to believe that they had rationally weighed up their options and come to that conclusion. One case recently was in a workplace conflict where a mediation agreement between two workers had run aground somewhat, and while in my view was very rescuable or at least had potential to be worked on, one of the parties just seemed to dig in his heels when it came to doing another mediation session. While he even realised that he may jeopardize his job over not getting this issue sorted, he says that he feels it’s ‘not worth trying any further’ and gave a list of reasons that would justify this case. However, a lot of anger and hurt also came across of which I suspect also was playing a large role in how he had reached this decision not to return to mediation. So it’s not about challenging or changing those feelings or reactions but simply about becoming more aware of what one is being influenced by and being able to choose whether to allow this to have a bearing on the decision or not.

Informal Options to Resolve Complaints

A previous post highlighted how easily workplace conflicts can get reframed as bullying or harassment complaints. Indeed, in many cases, by the time one or other person gets to the stage of making a complaint, many of the behaviours that each are exhibiting are very likely to be undermining or somewhat disrespectful to the other. That’s what we do when we are annoyed, frustrated or upset with someone! All of us have the potential to engage in these kind ofbehaviours – they are simply typical ‘fight or flight’ reactive conflict behaviours. It’s important therefore if someone does feel their working relationship with someone has deteriorated to the extent that they are looking for support or thinking of making a complaint, there should be a good range of options available to ensure that in the first instance, they are supported to think about resolving the situation rather than getting into a win-lose process.

  • Have a number of support options available. This is of course much more feasible in larger businesses and organisations. Most policies name a number of persons such as Human Resources Manager, Union Representative, Line Manager/Supervisor or other manager or supervisor. The Health and Safety Authority Code of Practice also refers to Contact Persons being available – trained volunteer members of staff who have a listening brief only. The main difference with Contact Persons is that an employee can have a confidential and off-the-record discussion to help them clarify their issues and explore how they might resolve or move forward with them. This minimises the formality of the discussion i.e. they are not putting a complaint on record with the organisation or company although in serious cases Contact Persons would have to consider reporting the matter on grounds of welfare of the employee in question.
  • Have the availability of external supports such as an employee assistance programme, mediation, conflict coaching, facilitation. Ideally these supportsshould be written into your policy in some way. Many policies nowadays have a piece on mediation which briefly explains what it is and how it works. However,I think it is important that even before this stage, there are options for employees that can help them figure out a way to resolve the issue for themselves. Most policies urge employees in the first instance to approach the ‘alleged perpetrator’ and seek to resolve the issues. How this approach is done is critical as it can easily become derailed and turn into an unconstructive and blaming conversation. Being able to get conflict coaching or support around this conversation can greatly increase its chances of success.
  • Even if the complaint comes in writing, consider mediation and encourage the parties to attempt this option. In my view, employers should wherever possible encourage people to engage in some sort of collaborative forum that aims to resolve rather than determine right or wrong. This is because in most cases,whatever chances you have of influencing negative behaviours through mediation or dialogue, an adversarial, investigative process – even where it makes a’complaint upheld’ finding – usually has little impact in terms of real change on the behaviour of one or both parties. It’s usually a question of winning the battle but losing the war.
  • Very often a situation between two employees lends itself more to a Line Manager mediating rather than bringing in an external mediator, especially where there is a good level of trust between the manager and two parties in conflict. For a start, it keeps the matter more informal as it can be set up easily rather than having to go through the financial and operational procedure of engaging an external consultant. Secondly, it sends a message that this is a situation that is causing some disruption in the workplace because of unhelpful conflict behaviours on each person’s part and cannot be tolerated. Thirdly, a manager can sometimes get both parties to the table more easily than if they are given a choice about participating in a formal mediation process and will often be able to do this at an early stage in the conflict and where relationships have not become too damaged. The key here is that the Manager gets coaching or mentoring so as to ensure they mediate effectively and that, in any event, their intervention doesn’t make the conflict any worse.
  • Have constructive and empowering conversations with someone who raises a complaint. If you are either in a human resources or management role and someone comes to you to raise an issue, rather than focusing in the first line on getting all the facts about when it happened, who was there etc – think instead about asking questions that will help the person think the issue through in terms of what they themselves could do. It’s so easy to feel that your role is to ‘fix’ or come up with solutions for them rather than to empower them to come up with solutions for themselves. A few questions you could try might be:• What is it you feel I could help you with most today?
    • What sort of options to you see open to you with regards to this situation?
    • What do you hope for?
    • What have you been thinking you might do next?
    • How would you like to see this being resolved?
    • What outcome do you want from this situation?
    • Imagine a point in the future where your issue is resolved. How did you get there?
    • How can you move this situation forward?
    • What can you do for yourself?
    • Where do you feel stuck in this issue?
    • What other supports do you have at the moment?
    • What’s the biggest challenge for you in getting this sorted out?