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Expectations Great and Small

Recently I mediated a conflict between two employees at the request of their employer. Initially, the two were friends and worked side by side. After some time, the good will evaporated, and the friction between them persisted even after they were moved to separate offices.

What I encountered were two individuals with highly defensive personalities. One could not understand how her comments could be misperceived as offensive; the other saw personal insults in every joke told. Neither was willing to budge from her position that she was correct and the other one was wrong. Little self-insight was expressed. Empathy was sorely lacking.

However, they did agree that their situation was caused by poor communication. They decided on a mediation agenda consisting of a single item which embodied their common interest:  communication. Their negotiation resulted in steps they were willing to take to improve that communication. They crafted an agreement that included the following commitments:

  1. To improve their own self-control at work. 
  1. To lower their expectations from a relationship of “friendship” to one of “co-worker.”
  1. To restrict their communications (written and spoken) to those necessary to get their work done.
  1. To conduct civil, pleasant and respectful communications necessary to get their work done.
  1. To avoid sensitive topics in their communications.
  1. To eliminate from their communications insults and comments that reasonably could be perceived as offensive .
  1. If a conflict between them should arise, they will not repeat it to, or share it with, other co-workers.
  1. If a conflict between them should arise, they will calm down and then take the conflict to Human Resources staff so that the three of them can have a conversation to discuss and, hopefully, resolve the situation.
  1. To let go of issues that cannot be repaired or resolved between the two of them.

None of these steps was surprising.  All flowed logically from the negotiation.  What was surprising, however, was the insight into their situation that the two eventually displayed. They realized that a friendship was unrealistic and that they should redirect their energies into becoming more productive employees and civil co-workers.  At the same time, they acknowledged that they lacked sufficient mutual trust necessary for resolving future conflicts directly. Instead, they agreed to seek out a facilitated conversation with Human Resources staff for this purpose.  Most importantly, they had an “aha” moment: they agreed to let go of the lingering issues between them that they could not repair or resolve.

In other words, they tamped down their great expectations of friendship and substituted small, positive, expectations that they thought would assist them to become better co-workers.  They hope that their new approach will bring much needed peace to each of them and to their employer going forward. 

Let’s see if their solution works.


Nancy Shuger

Nancy B. Shuger is based in Maryland.  After retiring as a trial judge in 2011, she launched her mediation business. Her practice is multicultural, focusing primarily on family, small business, workplace, and congregational matters. She is experienced in, and enjoys, working with self-represented parties.  MORE >

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