If you’ve ever been caught in the middle of a disagreement, you know how stressful it can be to fall into the role of the mediator. And if you’ve ever acted as the mediator for a conflict at work, you’ve likely felt the additional pressure of feeling like you have to balance neutrality and empathy. Conflict mediation is stressful no matter how you choose to confront it, but a certain mindset and some key approaches can help you reduce this kind of stress in the workplace.
“A mindset of conflict resolution or peacebuilding is different than a normal, everyday mindset. You have to stay curious and listen to everyone’s side — with total care and respect,” Jeremy Pollack, M.S., an anthropologist and conflict resolution consultant, tells Thrive. “If they do not feel heard or recognized, then resolving any conflict will be almost impossible.” In order to reduce your stress as a mediator while still easing the tension of your colleagues, try implementing these strategies the next time you find yourself caught in the middle.
Refrain from a referee’s mindset
As a conflict mediator, it’s all too easy to feel like you need to be the “referee,” making snap judgments and jumping into the middle of the situation whenever things get heated. Although this might feel like the best — or even the only — way to moderate a tense encounter at work, taking on the role of a “sportscaster” will actually better equip your colleagues to sort things out themselves. Heather Turgeon, M.A., M.F.T., a psychotherapist and author, writes for The New York Times that this method will let the parties involved know that you “acknowledge and respect their struggles, but you’re not immediately jumping in with a solution.”
To give this a try, “imagine you’re a sportscaster, and describe what you see in front of you,” Turgeon says. This helps you to be compassionately direct, while still avoiding alienating coworkers involved in the disagreement. A sportscaster-style statement might sound like this: “I see that both of you are frustrated right now. Alex, you are disappointed because Jane missed her last project deadline by a few hours. Jane, you are upset because Alex didn’t cooperate with your request for some extra help on that project. Am I getting this right?” First stating the facts back without additional input can help diffuse tension.
Separate content from delivery
In the midst of conflict, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by emotion, and say things you might not mean. As a mediator, it’s important to remember this and act accordingly by separating content from delivery. “This means listening to the meaning or intent of what the person is saying, and trying not to react to the anger, sarcasm, or criticism that is typically used to deliver the message in a conflict situation. For example, say, ‘You are being too aggressive right now, but I hear what you are saying,’” Kristin Behfar, Ph.D., a professor of strategic leadership and ethics at The United States Army War College and a researcher on conflict resolution in the workplace, tells Thrive.
Separating content from delivery can be tough; but working at it (and being clear with colleagues about the limits of what you’re willing to tolerate) pays off.
Avoid inserting yourself into the solution
As a conflict mediator, you’re not only tasked with diluting a potentially heated situation, but also protecting your own well-being under pressure. One way to do both is to help your colleagues reach a conclusion on their own, without passing judgment. “There are some words that imply judgment and reflect assumptions that make people more tense. Words or phrases like ‘you should,’ ‘you need to,’ ‘you ought to,’ [or] ‘you must’ reflect only your ideas or conclusions about how the person should solve the problem, rather than inviting the other person to offer you a solution,” Behfar says. Instead of telling your colleagues immediately what you think they should do, ask them questions that lead them to develop their own solution. For example, if the conflict at hand is related to missed deadlines, you could ask, “What are some factors that make the team unable to meet its deadlines?” or “What are some strategies you could implement as a team to make it easier for everyone to meet their deadlines?”
Develop a sense of safety and trust
One of the most crucial components of mediating conflict at work is creating and maintaining an atmosphere of trust. Pollack says the most important building blocks to form that foundation of trust include safety, confidentiality, neutrality, and respect. “If you are honestly going to help co-workers find their way out of conflict, they have to trust your guidance. The only way that can happen is if they know that the conversations around the conflict will be safe,” Pollack says. “They need to know that they will not be negatively affected at work for being honest about how they feel.” And if you promote a culture of compassionate directness, encouraging honesty, that will be inevitable.
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