Steven Covey had the right idea. There are discreet skills and
attitudes, habits if you will, that can elevate your conflict
practice to a new level. This article shares a selection of
habits and attitudes that can transform a good conflict resolver
into a highly effective one. By that I mean someone who
facilitates productive, meaningful discussion between others
that results in deeper self-awareness, mutual understanding and
I have used the term ‘conflict resolver’ intentionally to
reienforce the idea that human resource professionals and
managers are instrumental in ending disputes, regardless of
whether they are also mediators. These conflict management
techniques are life skills that are useful in whatever setting
you find yourself. With these skills, you can create
environments that are respectful, collaborative and conducive to
problem-solving. And, you’ll teach your employees to be
proactive, by modeling successful conflict management behaviors.
1. UNDERSTAND THE EMPLOYEE’S NEEDS
Since you’re the ‘go to person’ in your organization, it’s
natural for you to jump right in to handle conflict. When an
employee visits you to discuss a personality conflict, you
assess a situation, determine the next steps and proceed until
the problem is solved. But is that helpful?
When you take charge, the employee is relieved of his or her
responsibility to find a solution. That leaves you to do the
work around finding alternatives. And while you want to do
what’s best for this person (and the organization), it’s
important to ask what the employee wants first– whether it’s to
vent, brainstorm solutions or get some coaching. Understand
what the person entering your door wants by asking questions:
• How can I be most helpful to you?
• What are you hoping I will do?
• What do you see my role as in this matter?
2. ENGAGE IN COLLABORATIVE LISTENING
By now everyone has taken at least one active listening course
so I won’t address the basic skills. Collaborative Listening
takes those attending and discerning skills one step further.
It recognizes that in listening each person has a job that
supports the work of the other. The speaker’s job is to clearly
express his or her thoughts, feelings and goals. The listener’s
job is facilitating clarity; understanding and make the employee
So what’s the difference? The distinction is acknowledgement.
Your role is to help the employee gain a deeper understanding of
her own interests and needs; to define concepts and words in a
way that expresses her values (i.e. respect means something
different to each one of us); and to make her feel
acknowledged—someone sees things from her point of view.
Making an acknowledgement is tricky in corporate settings.
Understandably, you want to help the employee but are mindful of
the issues of corporate liability. You can acknowledge the
employee even while safeguarding your company.
Simply put, acknowledgement does not mean agreement. It means
letting the employee know that you can see how he got to his
truth. It doesn’t mean taking sides with the employee or
abandoning your corporate responsibilities. Acknowledgement can
be the bridge across misperceptions. Engage in Collaborative
• Help the employee to explore and be clear about his interests
• Acknowledge her perspective
o I can see how you might see it that way.
o That must be difficult for you.
o I understand that you feel _______ about this.
• Ask questions that probe for deeper understanding on both your
o When you said x, what did you mean by that?
o If y happens, what’s significant about that for you?
o What am I missing in understanding this from your perspective?
3. BE A GOOD TRANSMITTER
Messages transmitted from one person to the next are very
powerful. Sometimes people have to hear it ‘from the horse’s
mouth’. Other times, you’ll have to be the transmitter of good
thoughts and feelings. Pick up those ‘gems’, those positive
messages that flow when employees feel safe and heard in
mediation, and present them to the other employee. Your
progress will improve.
We’re all human. You know how easy it is to hold a grudge, or
assign blame. Sharing gems appropriately can help each employee
begin to shift their perceptions of the situation, and more
importantly, of each other. To deliver polished gems, try to:
• Act soon after hearing the gem
• Paraphrase accurately so the words aren’t distorted
• Ask the listener if this is new information and if changes her stance
• Avoid expecting the employees to visibly demonstrate a ‘shift in stance’ (it happens internally and on their timetable, not ours)
4. RECOGNIZE POWER
Power is a dominant factor in mediation that raises many
questions: What is it? Who has it? How to do you balance power?
Assumptions about who is the ‘powerful one’ are easy to make and
sometimes wrong. Skillful conflict resolvers recognize power
dynamics in conflicts and are mindful about how to authentically
manage them. You can recognize power by being aware that:
• Power is fluid and exchangeable
• Employees possess power over the content and their process (think of employees concerns as the water flowing into and being held by the container)
• Resolvers possess power over the mediation process (their knowledge, wisdom, experience, and commitment form the container)
• Your roles as an HR professional and resolver will have a significant impact on power dynamics
5. BE OPTIMISTIC & RESILIENT
Agreeing to participate in mediation is an act of courage and
hope. By participating, employees are conveying their belief in
value of the relationship. They are also expressing their trust
in you to be responsive to and supportive of our efforts.
Employees may first communicate their anger, frustration,
suffering, righteousness, regret, not their best hopes. You can
inspire them to continue by being optimistic:
• Be positive about your experiences with mediation • Hold their
best wishes and hopes for the future • Encourage them to work
towards their hopes
Be Resilient. Remember the last time you were stuck in a
conflict? You probably replayed the conversation in your mind
over and over, thinking about different endings and scolding
yourself. Employees get stuck, too. In fact, employees can
become so worn down and apathetic about their conflict,
especially a long-standing dispute; they’d do anything to end it.
Yes, even agree with each other prematurely. Don’t let them
settle. Mediation is about each employee getting their interest
met. Be resilient:
• Be prepared to move yourself and the employees though
productive and less productive cycles of the mediation
• Help the employees see their movement and progress
• Be mindful and appreciative of the hard work you all are doing
Hopefully, you’ve discovered that these are your own habits in
one form or another and that your organization is benefiting
from your knowledge. You can learn more about workplace
mediation and mediation in general from these books and websites:
The Power of Mediation Bringing Peace into the Room Difficult
Conversation: How to Say What Matters Most
[ (The New England Association of Conflict Resolvers)
(mediation portal site)
(conflict management toolkit)
“Mediation is based on a belief in the fundamental honesty of
human beings. Which is another way of saying we all want to be
treated justly – that is according to our unique situation and
viewpoint on the world. And we cannot expect to be treated
justly if we do not honestly reveal ourselves.” ~ the Honourable
Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister 1937