We get all kinds of questions at ODS about maneuvering through interpersonal conflicts that arise even in the best organizations. This one came in recently:


Dear RM:

conflict The answer to your question is most certainly yes, and a lot depends on your own relationships with these two folks, but let’s first step back a moment. Think about whether you really want to insert yourself in the middle of this problem. As with matters of great importance, mediation is usually reserved for situations where two parties have tried in good faith to resolve an issue but have reached an impasse. Presumably a neutral third voice is needed to overcome it. Supervisors who jump too quickly into this mode of thinking often create a well-worn path to their own door, as their subordinates become overly dependent on them to resolve difficulties. I believe it is wise of you to be reluctant here!

The best outcome for the organization is for the two individuals at the heart of the problem to resolve it themselves. On top of the stress relief involved, there are many side benefits to you, to the company, and to those involved if they can fix it directly. In addition, a new foundation of trust can be created between these people when they achieve progress without being led there by you.

Here is where your role as a coach comes in.

I encourage you to meet with each of the individuals privately, in a casual setting if possible, and share with them your observations about this growing issue of their lack of working together. Don’t proceed unless the person acknowledges that this difficulty exists. It might sound something like, “John, I want to level with you about something that I think is very important – the collaboration within our department. To be honest, it seems to be stalling right now between yourself and Debbi. What do you think?” Ask the open-ended question to get John talking. Now listen to what John says without interrupting. Be a role model for good, open-minded listening.

If John persists in bashing Debbi for her opinions, be polite but ask for a time-out. Remind John that we actually have two problems here – and it’s the teamwork problem for which you called this meeting. The underlying problem will need to get resolved too, once the air is clear. Take your time and be sure that John is with you before you go deeper into the “icky place”.

Teamwork Mention that you and others have witnessed the mutual “shut down mode” between John and Debbi. Most people shut down either because they feel attacked or they don’t feel they are being heard. Ask/coach John towards discovering what his own role might be in setting Debbi off. Get some commitment from him to approach future interactions with Debbi more constructively. Use the magic words, “Can I count on you for that?” In turn, do the same with Debbi.

Stay close to the situation, set dates for follow up, and encourage them both to try to resolve the underlying problem – but this time by first thoroughly listening to the other person’s viewpoint. A great way to make this happen is to get agreement that each party must verbalize the other person’s viewpoint to the other person’s satisfaction before proceeding to problem solving. If I can state your opinion clearly and completely – and you can state mine – then a) we must be listening to each other, and b) we are much more likely to find common ground and a way through this issue together.

With human interactions there are never any guarantees. But with two passionate people who care about outcomes, the deciding factor is often a matter of each person’s willingness to be influenced by the other.

Good luck Reluctant Mediator!

Please keep your questions coming! Feel free to be as general or as specific as you like; I will tweak them for a general audience!