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.