"If we cannot talk together, we cannot work together...interaction must not only create must also use the conflict to help fuel the discovery of new insights and sustainable learning." --William Issacs, author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together

Peace Talks: Mediation in the Workplace. Over the course of their lives, Americans will spend, on average, 90,000 to 100,000 hours at work. During that time, things aren't always going to go our way. It's normal for disagreements, personality clashes, and sometimes, intense conflict to arise. This time on Peace Talks, we'll talk about how to effectively surface and resolve conflict in the workplace. We'll learn what kinds of conflicts are normal and some specific tools for mediating disagreements at work. We'll also take questions from our studio audience on specific conflicts they are facing on the job. Our guests are two experienced mediators, Cynthia Olson from Albuquerque and Philip Crump from Santa Fe.

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What are some of the most common types of conflict that people have to mediate in the workplace?

Cynthia Olson: A lot of conflict in the workplace has to do in general with miscommunication. Something somebody thought they heard and didn’t check out. Rumors that are spread, that sort of thing. Often times, we’ll find that a supervisor sent an email and then the email was misinterpreted by somebody.

Philip Crump (at left): [Sometimes] it’s a clash of expectations, unexpressed expectations. “Well I thought you knew that…” or “Why didn’t you tell me that?” And rumors are a way that people have of filling in the blanks when they don’t know what’s going on. [They make up stuff like] “we’re going out of business or she got the advancement because of…whatever.”

What happens next? Do people just get madder and madder or are people ignoring each other? How does it turn into a conflict?

Cynthia Olson(at right): One thing that happens is that people gang up. We go out and try to find colleagues who agree with where we think things are and end up bifurcating the workplace. There’s actually a phenomenon called bullying that’s occurring in workplaces – people feel picked on or outnumbered. People can just hold in their resentment or their fears until such time that they have a little explosion.

Philip Crump : It’s sort of like junior high. There’s a fight. So people start to take sides. They start gathering evidence. They begin ascribing lots and lots of motives…”because they’re cousins, because somebody paid off somebody, because, because, because…” People become labeled and stereotyped and categorized. Then pretty soon, people who should be [talking] are not talking. People who shouldn’t be talking are. The amount of information goes down and the amount of rumor goes up. People get upset. The initial cause gets lost. Certainly nobody has stopped to find out what really happened.

What is mediation and how does it help?

Cynthia Olson: Mediation is a voluntary confidential process. One or two mediators who are third party to the issue at hand, who are objective, fair witnesses, who are sworn to confidentiality, and who are neutral, actually facilitate communication between the folks who are involved in whatever brought them to the mediation table. It’s an opportunity for the ones who are directly involved in a conflict to be the ones who directly resolve the conflict. The mediator doesn’t tell people what to do, the mediator isn’t a judge, the mediator isn’t there to figure out who’s right or wrong. The mediator’s really there to help them have a conversation about whatever it is that’s going on. People can leave the table with a mutually satisfactory resolution to their issues.


How can folks improve their communication at work?

Cynthia Olson: People really need to listen to one another without judgment if they can pull that one off. We tend to take things personally, we tend to hear the other one as attacking us. Instead, it’s better if we can listen seeking to understand where they’re coming from rather than becoming defensive immediately. Because when we feel attacked, we generally either choose to defend ourselves or attack back and defending ourselves usually sounds like an attack – we blame. “If only you had listened to me, you wouldn’t be asking that question….” People generally make assumptions. “I think I know what you mean but I don’t want to show my ignorance, or whatever, so I’m not going to ask the question. SO we make an assumption over what we think you mean and we’re almost always wrong. And on the other side of that, I think most people don’t say clearly what they mean. We generally cover that up a lot of times...for good reasons we think. We don’t want to hurt somebody. We don’t want to be vulnerable. I’m not going to tell you what I really mean because I don’t want to make it worse. So instead we end up talking about things that we don’t really mean.

Philip Crump: How to say what’s so, how to speak the truth, without blame or judgment is a key.

Cynthia Olson: The key is really in accepting that for each person, their value structure that they’ve come to is right for them. And that’s kind of a challenge in our culture for many cases for us to be willing to say, “Alright, my way of looking at this is good, and your way of looking [at it] is good for you.” And maybe we can even grow by recognizing that there’s two ways of looking at the same thing.

This isn’t rocket science – to use an old cliché. This is about honest and open communication and most folks realize that’s what’s supposed to be happening. We don’t really even understand ourselves why we don’t do that. So there’s something pretty wonderful about watching people just sort of be willing to do what they want to do in their relationships and communication and give up some of the programming that somehow or other we’ve all gotten. We need to recognize that conflict in the workplace is going to happen. This isn’t about stopping all conflict. This is about changing the way we think about it, changing the way we look at it and then being willing, and then being brave enough to change the way that we talk to each other about whatever it is we see as differences between us.

Philip Crump: I see mediation in the workplace and elsewhere as an opportunity to create a space for people to be able to say what they need to say, so that others can hear, so that they can create the kind of future together that they want.






WEBSITE: JOSSEY BASS PUBLISHERS (specializing in mediation publications)


BOOK: The Art of Waking People Up by Kenneth Cloke

BOOK: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen