A CIPD report has just confirmed that the scale of workplace conflict is rising, with 40% of organisations spending more time dealing with conflicts in the last 2 years (including time spent training managers in conflict management). Not all disputes require formal, external mediation to come to a resolution – sometimes it can just be a couple of workmates who have a personality clash and struggle to get along!

Conflict can be constructive – encouraging healthy debate, sharing views and ideas, addressing different needs, building relationships. But it can also be destructive – divisive, limiting communication, creating barriers, destroying relationships. With grown-ups though, we can’t just tell them to shake hands, make friends and play nicely – so what can we do to pour oil on those troubled waters?

Internal mediation can be a great help – but it’s not just a cosy chat; it needs to be an open, honest, controlled and structured discussion between 2 parties,  facilitated by a neutral, preferably trained, 3rd party. Start by talking to both parties individually – find out what the issues are and gain an understanding of each side’s issues, as well as establishing rapport. Make sure people feel at ease and have confidence in you as mediator before holding a joint meeting with them both.

Set ground rules from the start. E.g. Stay calm, no shouting, no swearing, no namecalling, no interrupting etc. They need to be honest with and respectful to each other, and importantly, maintain confidentiality – no water-cooler conversations with their mates afterwards; what goes on in mediation, stays in mediation!

One of the aims is to help the warring parties to identify the root cause of conflict – which may not be what they thought it was, or what it at first seems to be! So do a bit of probing to pin down underlying causes.

Conflict is usually personal – so you need to depersonalise it, so both parties can be more objective and less emotional. You can do this by separating the facts from the feelings and perceptions. People may be acting on perceptions/views they have of the other, or emotions that they have. So you need to ask the right questions to establish the facts, e.g. What actually happened, what was seen, what was heard – not rumours, opinions etc.

The discussion should be an exchange of information, questions and ideas between the two.  As mediator, your role is to help both parties craft a solution both are happy with – a win/win outcome.  It’s not to decide on one for them. Otherwise you’d be arbitrating, not mediating – which is a horse of a different colour! Let both parties speak uninterrupted and be sure they listen carefully to each other. You can ask questions to draw out information, clarify, summarise etc. E.g. Why something was said/done/thought, what was meant/intended. Useful questions – “How do you think that made X feel”  “Why do you think that happened” etc. – can check and increase understanding and empathy.

The pair can suggest possible options and remedies. Check what outcomes they each would like in an ideal world and what their needs are – but do a reality check! Parties can make requests of each other, but not demands.

But what if someone gets upset, angry, uncooperative or breaks the ground rules? Feedback techniques are your best tool here, following the format Observation >Impact >Request >Agreement. E.g “You’re raising your voice and that’s making it difficult for us to have a calm conversation – I’d like you to lower your voice a bit – will you do that?” If someone gets a bit blubby, offer water and tissues, but don’t mollycoddle them as it usually makes people even more blubby! Give a few minutes to collect themselves but avoid adjourning if you can. Be direct – “ I realise you’re upset/angry but it’s really important that we resolve this  – are you prepared to work with me on this?”

(Don’t say ‘Calm down’ – it’s probably the hardest instruction for people to comply with!)

To effectively deal with conflict though, you need a whole toolkit of interpersonal skills, plus an organisation with clear processes and procedures as well as a culture of openness, trust and feedback. Not the easiest thing to achieve – but surely easier than dealing with the tense and traumatic atmosphere of a toxic workplace!