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Conflict Crunch Time

In conflict management, time shapes outcomes. One way it does this is through the notion of “ripeness.” If a peach is not yet ripe, it is tough to bite and tastes sour. You need to wait for it to ripen before it is juicy and sweet. When working with people in conflict, we come across the same thing. They must reach a point where they feel ripe and ready to engage in dialogue. If you try to mediate too early, people can be stuck or unwilling to participate.

Time also factors into how to manage conflict during different stages: You can try to prevent conflict before it erupts, confront it during its peak, and/or dive into it after the intensity passes. (This concept probably deserves a blog post of its own!)

With a recent client, Jennifer, time played a less familiar role – in the form of a strict time frame. Two of Jennifer’s employees had just gone through a long legal process to resolve their interpersonal issues. The final legal agreement required Jennifer to facilitate a conversation between them, so they could improve their working relationship. This conversation had to be handled before a mandatory deadline: 30 days.

Jennifer had never mediated a conversation like this. And to make things worse, she only had a couple of weeks to prepare, thanks to the legal agreement. You can only imagine her feelings of urgency and pressure.

She decided to reach out to me for conflict coaching. Not only would this provide her with skills to facilitate the conversation; it would also demonstrate to her organization that she put as much effort as possible into resolving the situation.

As a mediation purist (at least that’s what my business partner calls me), I wanted to transfer all my knowledge so she could work as a seasoned mediator would. But I had to take a step back. Typical mediation training wouldn’t work for such a tight deadline.

With that limitation in mind, I created a crash course to cover basic tools and techniques. I narrowed the training to three main areas, focusing on skills that would be most valuable and comfortable for Jennifer to use. If you ever need to mediate someone else’s conflict like Jennifer, the following practices are a good place to start:

Conduct a readiness assessment

Although the mediation session was mandated by a legal agreement, it was still important for Jennifer to gauge how willing each person was to engage in dialogue (remember ripeness?). I guided her with questions to assess:

  1. The employees’ willingness to collaborate with their colleague
  2. Their willingness to agree upon a solution in which both people acknowledge their own contributions to the conflict and put effort into their commitments
  3. The benefits they foresee if the process is successful, as well as any concerns they have

Conducting this brief assessment before the mediation gives people an idea of expectations and what the conversation will look like, and it provides the mediator with a sense of how prepared they will be.

Structure the conversation

There are various approaches through which one could structure a conversation and agenda. Jennifer was feeling stumped about how she would handle this, and she appreciated the roadmap I provided:

  1. Start with participants sharing their perspectives
  2. Determine the specific topics around which they are having conflict
  3. Generate ideas that could resolve the conflict
  4. Agree upon commitments

Listening and response techniques

In addition to using the mediation structure, a crucial part of a mediator’s toolkit is the way she listens and responds to participants. I emphasized to Jennifer that these skills take a lot of practice and feel unnatural at first, so she should be kind to herself if she doesn’t master them for a while. I gave her a few tools that she could experiment with during the conversation:

  1. Reflect the participants’ feelings and values
  2. Practice impartiality and nonjudgmental language
  3. Take notes focusing on the concrete topics they want to resolve
  4. Managing power dynamics

Though this quick crash course in conflict management did not turn Jennifer into the most experienced mediator, it did leave her prepared for the task at hand, especially considering her rigid deadline. I later learned that the two employees are living their commitments and, while they may never be best friends, there is much less antagonism between them.

Learning something new in a tight time frame can be stressful, but with a few practical tools and structure, you will feel less overwhelmed. If you find yourself in a similar position to Jennifer, perhaps the time is ripe for you to try out some of these techniques.