Taking a Mediator’s Perspective to Resolve Conflict

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP


Have you experienced conflicts with another person, such as your boss, peer, or direct report, and felt that a mediator was needed? Perhaps the level of contention, disagreement, and emotion is so high that it is apparent neither you nor your colleague has the skills or patience that will enable either of you to communicate your concerns and to appreciate and reflect on the concerns expressed by the other person. . Only a mediator can help you clarify misunderstandings and work through disagreements, yet one is not immediately available or the matter does not warrant the commitment of time and expense to justify bringing one in.

But you really need a mediator! Where will you find one on such short notice and that will come quickly and cheap? Perhaps you are looking in the wrong place. Perhaps the mediator should be you.

Of course, it goes against logic to suggest that you, as a party in the dispute, can fairly and objectively ensure neutrality and an absence of bias for a matter for which you have a vested interest. While you can’t officially serve in this role, you can take the perspective of a mediator to represent your interest in fully considering the other person’s perspectives and working towards a resolution that is acceptable to both of you. Consider these suggestions:

Adopt a Different Tone
If your dispute has been contentious and protracted, you have likely contributed to making it as much as, or perhaps more than, the other person. It won’t be easy to convince your colleague of your interest in taking a different approach. You might start with considering the suggestions from When to Take Ownership of Conflict and begin to demonstrate your contriteness, concern, and positive intent. An apology may be in order and require a conversation of its own to demonstrate your interest in adopting a different tone.

Suggest a Different Approach
Once you’ve lowered the level of emotion so the other person at least has a glimpse, if not a full picture, of your intent to act differently, suggest a different approach that will allow you to take a mediator’s perspective. You probably shouldn’t use the word “mediator” as much as say you would like to take the time to understand each other’s perspective and to do so thoroughly before attempting to resolve anything:

“Look, I know we’ve been at odds for a while. I’d like to resolve matters as much as you would, and I know I haven’t made things easy for you. But I’d like to start from the beginning and really understand your concerns. If we are able to do that and you can also understand my concerns, perhaps we can find a way to move forward that will work for both of us.”

Understand the Other Person’s Concerns
Stand back and understand the other person’s concerns just as a mediator would. If the other person is persuaded by your suggestion, start by demonstrating your full and undivided attention to listen to and understand her or his perspectives, concerns, needs, and interests. Make the conversation all about the other person and avoid, at all costs, interjecting your own concerns, arguing against the person or somehow turning the situation back to you and your previously held commitment to the rightness of your beliefs. Suspend these judgments. Take time for this. A mediator would do this, allowing for your perspectives to be heard later. You’ll get your turn, but since there is no actual mediator in the room to keep you from interjecting and disputing, you must commit to being the disinterested mediator for both of you.

Demonstrate Empathic Listening
Demonstrate the deepest level of empathic listening that you can. We understand how eye contact, head nods, sitting forward, and other nonverbal cues, along with verbal cues like “uh huh” and “go on,” demonstrate attentive listening, but empathic listening goes deeper to demonstrate your presence with the other person and intention to feel as they do, were you in their shoes. Although you may not agree, it is vital that the other person sees your effort to understand where he or she is coming from. Paraphrasing and checking for understanding help this process:

“If I understand you correctly, you are saying that … And as a result, the situation has made you feel … Is that correct or am I missing something?”

Be Sure the Other Person Feels Fully Understood
Before concluding, be sure the person feels fully understood. You might ask, “Here’s my understanding of your concerns … Is that everything or is there more I should understand?” Your partner may, in fact, indicate that while you’ve grasped most of the details, there are a few points you missed. The beauty of this process is that it opens the door for correcting what you didn’t grasp initially. Ask for understanding of these additional points. Go back and forth in this manner, being sure the other person feels everything has been covered before proceeding further.

Encourage the Other Party to Do the Same
After modeling good listening behaviors, encourage the other party to do the same. If you’ve listened effectively, you’ve demonstrated the precise behaviors and attitudes you’d like the other person to demonstrate in return. Ask, “Can I ask you to listen to my concerns as I’ve listened to yours?” Suggest that the individual ask appropriate questions along the way to be sure he or she understands fully. As you share, you might highlight where there is agreement and where there is variance with the other person’s perspective, but do so in an objective, non-judgmental fashion to identify areas for further discussion, not as a means to criticize the other person’s positions. .

Explore New Opportunities for Resolution and Watch Your Ego
The suggestions provided here will be recognizable to anyone familiar with “seek first to understand, then to be understood” from Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” It simply puts this in the frame of an individual filling in as her own mediator in the absence of an actual mediator to assist in resolving a conflict. If you’ve demonstrated your commitment to understanding the other person and his or her concerns, and had your own opportunity to be heard, you have likely opened doors for resolving your conflict in ways not previously thought possible or dreamed of. Along the way, to be true to your commitment, be sure to check your ego. There are many lessons to learn to check against your own reactive and defensive behaviors and to monitor your words and actions to avoid triggering reactiveness and defensiveness in the other person. Effective mediators do this naturally. The challenge is to continuously imagine what a mediator would do as though one were present with you in the room.

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