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Miscommunication: A Symptom, Not Just a Cause

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

According to the employee, he’d been ready and able to go back to work for the past 6 months.  What’s more, the medical division had officially cleared him to go back to work 6 months ago. Despite periodic phone calls to his manager and to the medical division, the employee wasn’t told by management that he could return until a few days ago. Apparently there was a communication problem during that six months.  That problem may have been a cause of the conflict.  But the communication problems that happened in the mediation session were symptoms of the conflict.

After about a 10 minute version of the story, the employee turned to his manager. “Why didn’t you call me back to work when you knew I’d been medically cleared?”

“I didn’t know you’d been medically cleared.”

“Yes, you did.  The medical division told me they notified you.”

“Well I didn’t know about it.”

“You didn’t know about what?”

“That you were cleared.”

“How didn’t you know?  They sent you an email.”

“Go ahead.  I’ll let you finish.”

“See?  He doesn’t explain why he didn’t know.  Anyway, I lost 6 months of pay, I’m behind on my mortgage, I had to borrow money.  I have a family to support!”

Why didn’t the manager call the employee back into work sooner?  Had the medical division really notified the manager that the employee had been cleared?  Did the manager intentionally disregard the medical division’s message?  If so, what was the manager’s reason?  Does he dislike the employee?  Does he believe the employee is incompetent?  Or did the manager simply have too much on his plate?

I don’t know. And after an hour of mediation, the manager still hadn’t answered these questions.

Of course, we never know what happened before the mediation. Thankfully, we don’t need to know, we only need to pay attention to the parties and what they want to say about the situation.

Was the manager simply choosing not to answer the questions, because the answers would reveal that the manager had been at fault? Was the manager confused by the question and unaware that a simple “oh, the email must have gone to my spam folder” might have satisfied the employee?  Did the employee’s angry way of asking the question make it harder for the manager to understand what the question was?

I don’t know the answers to those questions either.  But this sort of conversation happens frequently in mediations.  According to transformative theory, during the destructive conflict cycle, interaction tends to be less effective, due to the parties’ sense of confusion about both what they need to say and about what the other party is saying.  When the destructive cycle is happening, ambiguities remain confusing.  In every day conversation, we’re able to say, things, such as “Sorry, I didn’t follow that. Are you saying that you didn’t receive an email from the medical division?”  But when we’re in the destructive cycle, we’re more likely to think “he’s lying” or “he’s being intentionally evasive.”  And we’re more likely to miss opportunities to clarify things, such as whether or not we received the email.

A transformative mediation can help parties shift back toward the sort of communication where they understand each other.  The mediator summarizes what he heard from each party about different aspects of the situation.  That summary can allow both parties to see where the ambiguity lies.

In this case, the manager was ultimately able to explain that he just doesn’t manage his email very well, that he has nothing against the employee, and that given his responsibility to manage over 150 other employees, this employee’s situation simply slipped through the cracks.  The manager also expressed regret about the impact the situation had had on the employee.  Coming to an agreement about what management would do to compensate the employee then took a matter of minutes.  What’s more the air had been genuinely cleared between the manager and the employee.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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