Using Mediation to Resolve Conflict and Disputes

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.


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.

Rebuilding Damaged Trust in Workplace Relationships

damaged trust working relatioshipsHe has broken my trust in him – how can I ever trust him again?”

Parties in a conflict regularly make statements to this effect often in a tone of pessimistic finality, which for someone trying to manage or resolve the situation can be quite a challenge. That’s because firstly, the word ‘trust’ itself is an abstract concept and not as tangible to negotiate as e.g. ‘roles and responsibilities’. Secondly, people often use the term ‘trust’ to encompass a wide range of aspects of the interdependent working relationship and end up feeling that they can no longer work with this other person.

So how might you coach or mediate in a situation where people are feeling that that ‘lack of trust’ is one of the key issues to be sorted out?

It can be helpful to get clear first of all what we mean by ‘trust’. In terms of formal definitions, one could say that trust is the “extent to which someone a person is confident in, and willing to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another”

Defining it in behavioural terms, trust can be broadly classified as :

  • Cognitive-based trust, based on someone’s demonstrating competence or dependability to perform effectively
  • Affective-based trust, based on emotion and a reciprocated sense of care and concern for the other person.

Cognitive-based trust in another person develops first and should be a feature of most functioning workplace relationships. However, many people working well together also develop levels of affective-trust, where they come to have genuine concern for one another’s welfare.

A further handy categorisation drawn from Ken Blanchard is the ABCD acronym:

  • Able – being competent in job performance
  • Believable – acting with integrity or credibility, fairness
  • Connected – demonstrating interest in and care for the other, being ‘real’
  • Dependable – following through on actions agreed

So how might you support someone or two parties who are framing their difficulties in terms of broken trust?

  • Use the definitions above to help people get clearer and more specific about what aspects of trust have been damaged for them e.g. is it the person’s job competence or perhaps a sense that they ‘don’t care about you’. People will express a greater sense of upset and disappointment where affective and not just cognitive trust has been damaged.
  • Invite them to express in specific behavioural terms what the events/actions were that led to them concluding ‘I can’t trust them’. Help them to get clear for themselves what it was they trusted the other person to do/say/be.
  • Acknowledge that there has been an emotional impact and invite them to talk about this – if you are in mediation, they might explain this to the other person. Rather than saying ‘how did you feel’, which can come across as being psycho-analysed, better to phrase your question ‘how did this affect you?’. If they are already very emotional and upset about it, ask them to come up with ‘one word’ to describe the impact for them.
  • A key factor that undermines trust is not so much a behaviour or action on the other person’s part rather it’s the negative intention that’s attributed to this. Inviting them to talk about how they read the other person’s motives can help them become aware of this. This can in turn then be checked with the other person – ‘was this your intention when you failed to meet the deadline/send the email/asked those questions at the team meeting’.
  • Use a neutral and non-blaming frame when talking about the difficulty e.g. ‘So this issue of trust between you…’ rather than ‘So the fact that Mary let you down so much Tom…’
  • As well as talking about the problem, invite both parties to talk about areas that they can still trust each other – this might be as basic as that each of them comes to work on time or that each of them still care about the customer/client/project. However, it’s a key step in beginning to overwrite that overwhelming sense of ‘I can never trust them again’ that has crept into the dynamic.
  • Use the metaphor of ‘rebuilding’ trust – i.e. that it is a process of small actions and steps on each of their parts. I often tell people ‘this meeting today is where you might lay the foundations of rebuilding your trust in each other…let’s now look at what some of the first layer of bricks might be’. This can then be used to help them brainstorm what specific actions they might need the other person to demonstrate in order to ensure effective working together. Tease out explicit expectations in respect of tasks, deadlines, objectives etc. If relevant, discuss also how they can ensure each of them follows through on what was agreed and how they will proceed should expectations of one another fall short again
  • As well as asking each person what they might need the other to do, invite each of them to say what actions they are willing to take themselves to rebuild the trust of the other person in them.

The ‘Snakes and Ladders’ board game is a helpful analogy for interpersonal trust in working relationships. It’s a gradual square by square process, with the odd ladder to help along the way. One might be way up in the nineties and one fatal slip, (landing on a snake) can take you right back down to the bottom again.

In supporting people to manage and resolve trust issues in a conflict, it’s essential to remain optimistic and remind people that while the working relationship might have ‘slithered down the snake’, they can always throw the dice and start again.

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.

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.

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.

Is Mediation Right for the Parties?

I’ve had a few mediation cases recently that didn’t reach agreement. In trying to analyse what ‘went wrong’, as it were, one conclusion I came to is that the parties weren’t really on board for mediation. They were on board yes, to have a dialogue with the other person with me present but really they weren’t in a place of being able to move forward.

In my current pre-mediation questionnaire I have a question ‘on a scale of 1- 10, to what extent would you like to get this matter resolved’. All of them gave either 9 or 10 out of 10 – yet my gut instinct, on reflection was that they hadn’t a clear understanding of the type of challenge that mediation presents.

Mediation yes, is a great process and has many advantages over its more adversarial cousins such as investigation or litigation. However, it’s not without its challenges. In order for mediation to be able to work, people need to be in some sort of mindset that fosters collaboration and compromise and be able to think in terms of needs rather than wants. Yet, it can be hard to help people clarify this for themselves in advance of the process and to get clear on the type of challenge they need to rise to if the process is to be successful.

I have since developed a short ‘quiz’ here that people can take in order to help assess whether they are in such a mindset. I’d welcome any thoughts or feedback you might have as to whether this would be useful or not. Maybe consider a conflict situation you are in yourself and how well this questionnaire would help you identify where you were at in terms of willingness to move forward in the situation.

Is there a need for some self-reflection before mediation?

While I have no solid research to support this assertion, my experience over the last six years seems to show a positive correlation between a person’s ability or interest in self-reflection and better outcomes for the conflict situation they are involved in.

An obvious indicator of a person having taken time to reflect on themselves is if they attend some form of one-to-one intervention such as counselling or conflict coaching. A couple of recent mediation cases illustrated this.

The first was a situation following an investigation of a bullying complaint that was put in by two people against one person. Mediation was proposed as a means of rebuilding the working relationship. At the pre-mediation meetings with both of the complainants, they both spoke about their fear of the person and there was also lot of anger towards her. At the time, I had suggested that they consider attending the company’s Employee Assistance Counselling service.

One of them did and the other ‘couldn’t find the time’. Notwithstanding the fact that both had different issues, personalities etc. there was a clear difference in how each of them presented and dealt with the mediation meetings that they then had with the person they complained about.

The person who had attended counselling was much calmer, accepting and although still somewhat fearful, was able to see the situation from a broader viewpoint, not just one of ‘victim’ and ‘offender’. They reached an agreement about how to restart working together.

The other person was still palpably angry and predictably, the mediation was more about how little contact they would want from each other and how best to manage that, in the future working relationship.

A second interesting case was one where an organisational glitch in moving people and departments resulted in one employee being quite hurt and traumatised.

The organisation recognised and acknowledged their faults and her line manager actually met with her in a facilitated meeting and apologised profusely for what had happened. Yet almost a year later, the employee requested an independent mediator to facilitate a meeting with her and her manager, telling me in pre-mediation that the manager had never actually apologised to her!

She had in the meantime attended counselling and the mediation worked well, her manager reiterated the apology. The client said later that she had been so angry and upset she hadn’t actually heard the apology that had come in the first meeting!

In my view and experience, mediation will only work to the extent that parties are willing and able to engage in some sort of process (and it might just be taking the time to think it through themselves) that causes them to work on themselves internally rather as simply turning up on the day and hoping that the other person has done all the changing!