Workplace Mediation Skills Are a Manager’s Best Friend

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By Jerome Dickey, CHRP

We may not call it mediation but when managers bring together differing personal views or requests, clarify differing assumptions or shed light on what’s important to an employee or colleague, they’re likely practicing many skills of meditation.

After all, mediation in essence is a facilitated conversation or discussion in an atmosphere of trust or safety for the participants. What it takes to consistently be successful using such a facilitated approach involves applying a general framework or process and using some skills and tools in a manner which many might call, “as much of an art as a science”. Let’s look closer at what those skills are and how they can improve the workplace.

Foundations
It’s probably no secret that good communication skills are foundational. Active listening involves not only listening to others with full attention but noticing such subtleties as body language and observing changes in it, voice tone, and eye movement to name  a few. These are powerful signs that provide important context that words alone do not.

Asking questions is another important skill. We all ask questions on a daily basis but are we aware of the differing purposes and the potential impact on a discussion? Some questions help clarify, others open and expand a conversation while others can quickly close it down. What’s your default type? Specific questions serve differing purposes. With conscious awareness, questioning becomes a more fluid dialogue with increased understanding and a sense of balance in conversations. If you’ve ever had a discussion with someone and felt like you’ve really been heard, gained clarity, a deeper understanding of the other person or felt overall very positive about the interaction, chances are there was a good exchange of questions.

As Brian Grazer best describes in a recent article, “Curiosity — asking questions — helps create trust. Asking questions confers responsibility. Asking questions implies that the person you’re talking to has both the authority to come up with the ideas, the answers, the solutions — and some of the responsibility to do so as well. Questions at work — delivered not like a prosecutor on a cross-exam, of course, but with a genuine spirit of humility and a desire to learn — are an apparently simple tool that changes the whole dynamic with the people you work with, and the results you get.”

The Peace Maker
Sometimes employees will simply talk disagreements out with some success; we all know people who seem to have a knack for “fixing” arguments and disputes amongst others. The risk is that one party can be more assertive or even aggressive while the other simply chooses to avoid the issue or give in by way of a compromise. Peace may be had temporarily but more often than not, an underlying issue or resentment will remain and re-surface again at a different time or even as part of another problem with the same person or party.

Often, without some type of facilitated or managed conversation, a more permanent solution will remain elusive and the pattern of conflict will re-emerge again, taking more time away from productive work and potentially incurring extensive costs when escalation does occur. How many grievances, harassment cases and workplace bullying incidents start off as little more than minor disagreements but then escalate over time?

Operations Drive the Business
Of course many manager’s operational responsibilities preclude sufficient time to observe and facilitate in-depth, proactive conversations. As a result, many conversations become reactive, involving a response to an immediate problem, an incident or accident. After all, time is money! With initiative, it can often be uncomfortable to be curious if an appropriate approach and skillset are not used. Add to that the risk, like peeling off a band aid from a cut, that a manager could potentially make the situation worse. Why risk it? Often, it’s more convenient to move or reassign an employee or simply ignore the problem until it impacts the operations or becomes so visible that others like HR are forced to get involved, if not take it over, relieving that manager of the problem.

Learning the basic skills of mediation is not difficult but does take time to become comfortable with and master to some degree. In addition to resolving interpersonal problems, these skills can also be used to enhance productivity, build high performance teams and drive creativity and engagement, two critical objectives to success in today’s competitive problem solving environments.

Competitive Advantage
As Daniel Pink highlights in his recent book, A Whole New Mind, that creative and conceptual thinking will be more of a factor in an organization’s competitive advantage in future. In other words, for success there will be more need to innovate in many aspects of the workplace and possibly less focus on managing. It can be a fine balance between “letting sparks fly” to promote innovation and creativity and preventing destructive conflict that could emerge.

Using the “tools” and skills of mediation can provide a strong foundation for higher emotional intelligence, something that’s more important than ever in the workplace to cultivate positive energy, and improve teamwork. A “mediation toolbox’ includes strong social skills to establish and maintain a dialogue, self-awareness of how you are presenting yourself and possibly influencing the dialogue, empathy or understanding the influence of feelings on the situation, and finally, self-managing reactions or emotions in high-pressure situations.

Ultimately, managers who increase their understanding and ability to exercise the skills of workplace mediation will also increase their emotional intelligence and that’s good for both personal and organizational success.

To learn more about workplace mediation and dealing with high conflict personalities, attend the 2015 BCAMI Symposium on June 8-9th at SFU’s Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver.

Jerome Dickey, BA, CHRP is a dynamic Business Professional with solid expertise in both Operations and Human Resources, providing unique strengths to transform business through people for optimum results. 20 years of leadership and management roles in the airline, transportation and utility industries have crafted his skills for changing challenging business problems into opportunities. Visit JeromeDickey.com for more information.

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