How does mediation make a difference to workplace conflict?

“I wish we had done this earlier” is the most common reflection we hear from our workplace mediation participants.

In the fifteen years that we have been using mediation its use has been expanding rapidly. Although more people than ever are aware of workplace mediation, surprisingly few have an accurate understanding of it. It means that many are still missing the opportunity to benefit.

Mediation’s power in restoring harmony to relationships is difficult to appreciate unless you’ve seen it in action.  Getting under its skin to see why it works, helps to reveal that power.

So what is mediation, really? 

In the workplace context, (facilitative) mediation is a structured process where someone who is impartial assists people to resolve their own conflict through the use of specialised communication techniques. 

Let’s break it down:

a structured process: the mediators take participants on a clear pathway of steps. We help them communicate, appreciate each other’s perspectives, learn and move on. As a result, they hit essential building blocks which give them a final outcome based on solid foundations and therefore sticks.

impartial: the mediators support all the participants equally throughout. People in conflict are usually stressed and dealing with a storm of emotions; we aim to ensure each can get the most out of the process. More on this below.

people resolving their own conflict: the premise of mediation is that ‘the mediators own the process but the clients own the content’. Participants decide what they want to bring up, what they want on their agenda and how they go forward. They can address all aspects of the conflict, for instance, practical, emotional and moral. This self-determination helps keep resolutions acceptable, realistic and likely to last.

Contrast that with formal processes. In these, the rules dictate what information is exchanged, what (if anything) can be discussed, and the outcome (usually apportioning blame) is imposed by a third party.

specialised communication techniques: mediators bring a range of skills and knowledge to help people find resolution. These include:

  • understanding of the conflict cycle
  • appropriate questioning
  • identifying underlying needs
  • noticing conflict management styles (shark, turtle, bear….)
  • knowledge of cultural differences which may affect communication 
  • reframing of input so that listening continues
  • awareness of body language (eg. micro-expressions)
  • dealing with power balances (including signs of vulnerability or abuse).
Four essential pillars

The principles upon which mediation is built are not just window-dressing. They really are why it works. 

  • Voluntary: freedom to choose increases commitment. It helps enormously in conflict resolution when those involved are sure of everyone’s commitment. There is no escaping that workplace mediation participants may not feel that they are free of pressure from their employer (spoken or unspoken) in agreeing to it. However, mediators can overcome this by seeking parties’ good faith in giving it a try, and assuring them of their agency within the process. This includes being free to take a break or leave the process. People do sometimes call a halt, but with good support they almost always choose to continue.
  • Confidential: encouraging open and honest discussion. Getting to get to the root of conflict may mean people disclosing sensitive information, admitting to behaviour they regret, or testing new ideas on change, for example.  Mediation creates a space where people can do that without fearing it will come back to bite them. The kinds of conversations it enables is what helps to build better relationships. Confidentiality applies throughout. It covers what people share privately with mediators and what they say to each other. Although people often expect the mediators to report back to the referrer, it shouldn’t happen.
  • Impartial: treating people fairly maintains trust in the process and avoids adding further levels of grievance. It helps to keep people focussed, open-minded and hopeful. That’s a great foundation for a constructive dialogue and outcome.
  • Neutral: freeing people to create their own solutions. This includes freedom from the need to ‘curry favour’ with someone who may have influence on their work or career. The neutrality of the mediator is equally important to a lasting outcome.
In-house or external?

 All mediators strive to give participants confidence in these pillars of the process. However, in-house mediators may have to work harder than independents to ensure that it is perceived as truly confidential, impartial and neutral.

What happens in the mediation sessions?

The process takes participants on a pathway from past to future. 

Before they come together, each participant will meet privately with the mediators. A first (1 hour) meeting allows them to ‘offload’, reflect on the situation and what they would like for the future.  A second meeting (30 minutes) focuses on preparation for the joint session.

Participants have often spent a lot of time ruminating on events. Having someone listen deeply and help them clarify their thoughts without leading or seeking to ‘solve’ is hugely helpful to them. These meetings are also key in building rapport and trust with the mediators which become vital later on.

After the private sessions the mediators will take stock. Occasionally, it is apparent at this point (or earlier) that mediation is not appropriate and we suggest a re-think. 

The joint session (3-4 hours) begins with a chance for participants to speak without interruption. This is a vital part of the process. They generally pick up new information or perspectives, which, even if they don’t agree, form the basis of open discussion. Not infrequently, this is the first time they have spoken directly with each other about the issues.

Moving forward

Once the issues have had a thorough airing, the final problem-solving phase begins. The participants agree practical steps to help them achieve the positive change they need. Only if all parties agree will the mediators share the resulting agreement with others, such as the referrer or manager. 

Whilst most workplace mediations do result in a written agreement, they are not the be-all and end-all. Clarity, peace of mind, certainty, or just having been heard are valuable outcomes too. For some people these are enough to enable them to move forward.  

Flexibility to meet people’s needs

One of the strengths of mediation is its flexibility.  It means that as long as the participants hit each ‘building block’ (mentioned above), the mediators can adapt the process to meet clients’ needs. This includes, for example, using online as well as in-person sessions to make the process – which can be tiring and challenging – as comfortable and productive as possible for participants.  

Versatility: not just for grievances

ACAS, the CIPD and others encourage the use of workplace mediation over formal processes.  Our own casework shows its versatility in addressing all kinds of interpersonal difficulties. In recent cases, with our support:

  • a small team addressed tensions which had exacerbated one member’s mental ill health 
  • the leaders of two charities resolved difficulties which were in the way of better collaboration
  • two partners in a professional services practice agreed a way forward following a company restructure
  • a team cleared the air after a formal investigation of one of its members 
  • two colleagues discussed bullying allegations, as an alternative to a grievance
  • an employee, who was returning to work after ill health, agreed steps to improve their interaction with several team members.

In all these cases, those involved decided how to move on. In the majority, they agreed a fresh start together having committed to do things differently. Along the way, they cleared up misunderstandings and gained new perspectives. Many heard or expressed empathy, regret and appreciation as well as grievances. In short, they built the foundations of a better working relationship.

Hearing from participants, after reaching agreement, that “I really didn’t understand how much this would help” or “Why haven’t we done this sooner?”, renews our determination to share the realities and benefits of mediation. 

To find out whether mediation can help you address a difficulty between colleagues, feel free to call or email. We’d be happy to discuss the situation.

image of colleagues talking - an early conversation can prevent conflict escalationa dog with its paw up as if asking a question