An 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.