Transforming Conflict into Productivity

Dan Simon (, a committed transformative mediator, presented a thought provoking program at the Heartland Mediators Association ( annual meeting last week. In a day and a half, Dan summarized his 40-hour transformative mediation training using humor and great illustrations. My thoughts ran not only toward utilizing what I learned when I mediate employment disputes but also to how I could translate some of the principles to Human Resources (HR) and other managers.

I hope I can do justice to Dan’s message in this brief summary.  The core concept is that all conflict is a crisis in human interaction.  Midst-of-conflict, people tend to experience a sense of “weakness” (confusion, fear, disorganization, vulnerability, powerlessness, uncertainty, indecisiveness) and “self absorption” (self-protection, defensiveness, suspicion, hostility, closed-mindedness).  Sound familiar?  It’s complicated, because sometimes the weakness is masked by bravado or bullying behavior.  One way to deal with conflict is avoidance, time or distance.  But that isn’t ideal and sometimes people need help overcoming this crisis and restoring constructive interaction.  In the context of the training, that help would be facilitated by a mediator working with the people who are in conflict (and perhaps their lawyers). The goal of the conflict resolution process is to promote a dynamic shift from weakness to “empowerment” (clarity, confidence, personal strength, organization, decisiveness) and from self-absorption to “recognition” (attentiveness, responsiveness, openness to the other and appreciation of their situation).

The transformative mediator uses a non-directive approach based on these premises:

  • A person’s reality is unique to that person and based upon his/her life experiences;
  • People have inherent needs both for advancement of self and connection with others;
  • People are capable of making decisions for themselves – and want to do so;
  • People are capable of looking beyond themselves – and want to do so.

Techniques are discussed below, but as an aside, it strikes me that this approach is much more applicable to a divorce/family dispute or an employment dispute before lawyers are involved.  However, Dan Simon swears based on his 16 years’ experience that it is also a miracle worker in commercial litigated cases.  I supposed that’s because at their core, even battles between companies are really due to a breakdown in relationships.

So how is this useful to HR or a manager?  Let’s take an example using the transformative mediator’s techniques:

Imagine a long-term employee (Terry) with an okay performance record whose performance and attendance start slipping.  As the supervisor verbally addresses those problems, Terry’s attitude gets worse, bordering on insubordination.   So Terry is given a disciplinary warning – if you don’t shape up, we will take action up to and including termination of employment. Terry then goes to the HR rep and complains: my manager is harassing me due to age. The classic response (and good advice from my employment lawyer perspective) would be that the employer does a neutral investigation into the age claim – asking Terry “What makes you feel that way?”, comparing objective work records of younger workers, etc.  Unless there is a finding that the discipline is unwarranted, the investigation is essentially on a parallel track with the performance management process.  Legally, making a complaint doesn’t work as a shield from consequences due to performance deficiencies.

Alternatively, HR could use the investigation to get Terry – alone or with the supervisor – to move toward a position of empowerment and recognition.  A first technique is “reflecting” where the investigator would say back what Terry has expressed, matching substance and emotional tone. “So for you, what’s happening is that . . .” “What you seem to be saying is . . .”  “You’re feeling . . .” Hearing one’s own words come back tends to cause movement in perspective. The discussion could range from performance to attendance to why Terry feels age is playing a role. If the supervisor is present, the same questions can be asked of him, and this has the benefit that Terry and the supervisor hear the other’s position from a neutral person which can promote listening. The second technique is “summarizing”. “So what we’ve talked about is . . .” “There are several things you disagree about, including . . . “ Move from summarizing to “Checking in”.  “So where do you think the discussion should go at this point?”  Finally, “Staying/Backing out” means the investigator/mediator remains silent and lets Terry (or Terry and supervisor) discuss.  (This part is very very hard for someone used to directing discussions!)

The earlier conflict is addressed, the better.  And in the workplace, unaddressed conflict can turn into expensive, time-consuming litigation.  Finding opportunities to resolve conflict at its inception can truly pay off.