Recent articles have suggested broader and more collaborative roles for conflict management and mediation in the workplace (Brubaker, et. al., 2014; Meierding, 2015). We believe this opens opportunities for practitioners in both fields.
A key motive for closer integration between workplace mediation and conflict management processes is the desire of organizational clients to control costs. In a manner similar to the evolution from litigation to alternative dispute resolution, organizations are increasingly recognizing the advantages of improved ability of managers and employees to manage their conflicts at the lowest possible level and at the earliest possible time. If personnel are unable to address the conflicts themselves, they should then have the ability to get third party assistance in resolving the issue—preferably before it has grown into a bigger problem with more serious consequences.
From a future perspective this presents practitioners with the ability to expand their competencies and provide a more comprehensive package of services to their clients. Mediators can enlarge their practice to include conflict coaching and training. Conflict management specialists can learn workplace mediation techniques that they can use to address specific disputes for their clients.
Conflict Management Techniques for Mediators
Mediators typically enter the process once a conflict has become a dispute and people are already upset about the issue that is causing business problems. They play an important role in these situations, but how much better would it have been if the parties could have resolved their problem by themselves? If a mediator expands her toolkit to include the ability to improve clients’ own conflict management skills, she can aid the resolution of future issues in more expeditious ways.
On the one hand the mediator can learn how to teach conflict management skills to others. These skills help clients improve their own conflict competence (Runde and Flanagan, 2012). The skills include expanded self-awareness, enhanced emotional intelligence, and improved conflict communications capabilities.
Expanding self-awareness is typically approached by coaching, interviewing, or using assessment instruments such as the Conflict Dynamics Profile or the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument. When people become more aware of how they typically respond to workplace conflict, they are better able to employ constructive approaches and avoid defaulting into destructive or ineffective ones.
The human experience of conflict is replete with complex emotions, and helping clients learn to manage those emotions is of great importance for conflict management practitioners. This includes improving awareness of what triggers one’s negative emotions in the first place and developing personal practices for managing those emotions and regaining a sense of balance.
Enhancing constructive communications involves learning about one’s behavior patterns and working on lessening the use of habitual destructive behaviors. Those habits often escalate or prolong conflict. Improved patterns increase the use of constructive responses, which clarify issues and develop sustainable solutions that benefit both parties.
In addition to conflict management training strategies, the workplace mediator can also develop conflict coaching skills that enable working with clients on an individual basis. One-on-one coaching can improve the person’s ability to manage conflict in general as well as to help them deal with a specific conflict or dispute that is currently challenging them.
By acquiring the skills needed to train or coach clients to improve their own capacity to manage or resolve conflict, mediators expand their portfolio of offerings for their clients.
Workplace Mediation Processes for Conflict Management Specialists
Conflict management specialists help clients improve their capacity to deal with the inevitable conflicts that occur in organizations. They can help their clients get better results from the conflicts that do occur and minimize destructive outcomes.
While many of the conflict management processes that are taught are conceptually simple to understand, they are not necessarily easy for people to actually perform. This is especially true when the pressure is on and emotions are running high. In these cases people often default to their fight-or-flight instincts or as we call them, “their wrong reflexes” (Dana, 2001).
When the intensity of conflict rises to a level that the parties feel unprepared to resolve by themselves, it is helpful to be able to call on a third person to help resolve them. In many cases this will be a workplace mediator, who has additional skills to address more difficult disputes. In less difficult situations, a manager or an HR professional who has learned foundational facilitation skills, such as “managerial mediation,” (Dana, 2001) can also help the people talk though the issue and come up with their own resolution of the problem.
Conflict management specialists can learn and apply these mediation skills. They can then help clients address those disputes that the clients have not been able to resolve on their own. They can also impart facilitation skills to the clients that they can use in subsequent conflicts. These behavioral tools build the client’s competence and expand their capacity to resolve their own conflicts without assistance.
From the Client’s Viewpoint
Clients want their problems solved. Since conflict is inevitable in the workplace, they need to be able to address it in the most effective manner. By improving the capability of managers and employees to deal with conflicts, it becomes possible to deal with conflicts at an early point before it grows contentious and leads to more serious problems. They also need to be able to manage conflicts that remain unresolved following attempts at lower levels. In these cases developing internal resources and establishing contacts with external mediators can provide third party help needed to address more problematic disputes.
The ability to turn to practitioners who can address a wide variety of their conflict needs simplifies the process for clients. A practitioner with a broader portfolio of tools and skills can address a wider array of client issues. The practitioner can also see the client’s needs in a broader perspective and can craft solutions that will help prevent reoccurrence of problems.
From the Practitioner’s Viewpoint
Broadening their skills adds to practitioners’ sense of confidence and ability to help others resolve problems. The expanded portfolio of services allows them to offer a more comprehensive set of services to enable clients to solve their own problems and to have a fall back option when they are unable to do so. This improves the client’s ability to address problems in a more timely and cost effective manner. This efficient and sustaining approach will be a hallmark of successful conflict practitioners in the future.