Mediation as a tool for understanding others and solving conflicts in teams
February 3, 2023
Even well-functioning teams can be affected by conflicts
I used to think that healthy and functioning teams don't experience conflicts. I would imagine such teams as environments where it is easy for people to speak up and solve everything in a swift and kind way. I thought that people in well-functioning teams just have discussions like “adults do” and that is it. I used to perceive conflicts as a symbol of weakness, fights, incompetence and participants' puffed-up egos.
However, my perception of conflicts has changed dramatically. I now see them as one of the most significant signals - it indicates that the team has a potential to be healthy and its members are willing to trust each other. People in such teams have the courage to disagree with each other, talk about it and stick together regardless of what happens. Such team members are open to listening and understanding others, as well as willing to find a common ground. It might not be easy, but the outcome is worth it - a new solution of the conflict that consists of various points of view.
What is a conflict? Let's clarify it.
We tend to perceive conflicts as competition, rivalry, hostility, distrust and/or as a win-lose game. Of course, this can also be an option. However, viewing conflicts in this way creates too many barriers that prevent us from cooperating with each other, trusting and having dialogues. The situation turns into a power game in which each participant fights to be the “truth owner”, pushes against others, argues with everyone and wants to win. Such participants do not listen to what the other team members have to say, let alone what they need.
Another thing is that we often don't see ourselves realistically. We might end up stuck at focusing on being right and proving others wrong. When this happens, we are not able to think straight - we no longer think of what it is that we actually need in the given situation. If we are focused on being the “owner of the truth”, we get stuck at collecting pro-arguments, forming coalitions and seeking support for our point of view. We simply end up chasing the “I am ultimately right” position.
Since I love art and paintings, let's transform words into visual images. Let’s try to imagine that we are surrounded by tiny little threads in every situation. These threads represent the options we have in any given situation - e.g., in a conflict situation. Not all the threads are good and useful. However, when we are in the midst of a conflict-fight, we tend to focus on one thread only. We don't see the other threads and think that fighting is the only possible option. It is like saying that the only travel option from Prague to Bratislava is driving on a highway. However, that is just one of the possibilities.
What about taking the train?
Or riding a motorcycle?
Maybe a bicycle?
We can take the bus or even hop on the plane!
If this occurs frequently in your team, the team members are likely to face conflicts on a regular basis. It typically starts as a factual issue and gradually turns into a personal conflict. At the very beginning, there are usually two people involved in the argument, both absorbed in aspiring to be “the one who is right”. After months/years of consolidating their positions, gaining supporters, and forming coalitions, the animosity spreads all across the teams as well.
Metaphorically speaking, this is like a trench warfare, where nobody wants to move and leave their positions. Most people want to fight till the end; in the name of truth… of THEIR truth. Such situations usually end up with people calculating the other person's position and collecting pro-arguments. All participants look at the people around them through a filter they have gradually created. It doesn't matter what others say, think, or need. All they know is that the other participants’ metaphorical thread is different from theirs.
There is probably no need to analyze all the consequences in detail. The majority of time and energy are not invested in finding the best possible solution for the team/company. Instead, the time and energy are spent on competing, gossiping, slandering, looking for like-minded supporters, and creating strategies for defeating the opponent(s).
I recall the time I found myself in the middle of two senior managers fighting. Watching their interaction was laughable in a way. They would refuse to talk to each other in meetings. When asked a closed question, one would nod his head “yes” and the other would shake his head “no”. They wouldn't even look at each other. At that time, I had no idea how to handle a situation like this.
Long-term disagreements cost time and energy. Everyone around them pays the price. Such disagreements destroy team ties. They delay innovation and hurt business.
The hidden silence trap
There is a hidden aspect of the conflict issue. The opposite of a conflicting situation is a non-conflicting situation, and silence can be viewed as one. It can also be seen as an agreement. One way or another, considering silence as an absence of a conflict makes us fall into a trap of believing that everything is perfectly fine. We are all different and everyone reacts differently to conflicts. Some people have the tendency to use a false agreement as a way of dealing with a conflict. Silence doesn't say what we actually think.
There are many possible causes:
- You don't want to be confronted with an argumentative colleague, so you prefer to apathetically/resignedly agree
- You are worried about the relationship, so you agree despite having a different opinion
- You don't want to be “the trouble-maker”
- You don't believe in yourself and don't have the courage to stand up for your opinion
Going back to the visual image we used a few paragraphs above and the winner holding onto their one thread. The thing is that they have no idea which thread (or threads) the other side would like to pull. That reinforces their belief in their own truth.
The long-term impact on the company is similar. Just a limited group of people is heard - the one with the strongest voice. However, just because someone has a strong voice doesn't mean they have the best solution or that they are right. Relationships may not be heated, but they are most likely apathetic. If you have the word “engagement” in your dictionaries and KPIs, don’t look for it in situations like this. You won’t find engagement in combination with resigned people. It is common that people end up doing things their own way anyway. They squabble and complain to each other... but it's not a transparent game. The attitude of people who falsely agree just for their own peace of mind is more of a silent declaration of the "I am a victim" position.
The power of mediation
Mediation helps in both above-mentioned cases.
Mediation = a process where parties involved in the conflict (often on a personal level) speak through an impartial person; mediator.
The mediator is not a judge. He/she is not "the smartest person in the room", his/her role is not to say who is right or wrong. He/she helps people have a slightly different conversation with each other than usual. There are typically strong and uncomfortable emotions that the mediator uncovers and reflects on them.
Through the mediator, the feuding parties hear sentences and words that they are not willing to hear from each other. It is a process that can take anywhere between one and six hours. It can be a one-off or a repeated session.
Mediation may not bring a happy end
There is a common assumption that every mediation session ends in a mutual agreement. However, that may not be true. Mediation does not always result in agreement, happy smiles and relieved hugs. As the name suggests, it helps both sides understand the "multiple threads" point of view. Mediation allows us to understand the situation - our perspective as well as the other person's perspective. It gives us a better understanding of what is going on inside the other person and what they really need. I often notice how seldom we say the things we really need. We don't have the time to "dig" within ourselves, and we prefer to spend our time fighting for something that won't ultimately satisfy us anyway.
The biggest change happens within us
Accepting that we don't feel comfortable in a given situation is essential and leads to agreements. It can also lead us to make decisions on changes in our lives. Last but not least, it can also bring us clarity in terms of disagreement - we may come to realize that we can't agree with the other person on the discussed topic because our positions are too different.
If mediation happens in time, it usually takes very little (sometimes just one sentence) to break down the barriers. All of a sudden, enemies become people who want to understand each other more.
Where does a conflict-fight become a conflict-opportunity?
Let's be clear: conflicts are a natural part of life. Can you recall a situation where you had two different perspectives on one thing and wondered what was actually right? Conflicts and differences in opinions arise in many situations. They stem from different experiences, expectations, attitudes and values we all have. They are also affected by our current mood. In addition to these internal factors, lack of time/space for reconciliation and lack of information also contribute to potential conflicts.
Taking conflict as an opportunity means being open to seeing multiple (metaphorical) threads that surround us. At the same time, it means being curious and willing to look for the threads we don't see yet.
Why is it good to have conflict-opportunities?
Relationships get stronger when we solve a problem in a way that makes everyone happy, not necessarily with the result but with the way it was solved. Sentences like "it was fair", "I felt heard", "I feel like my opinion has weight" often come as a feedback.
This is how we build confidence in the ability to work through the next difficult situation together again. Each participant can trust themselves, bring a different insight or input, and still be part of the team. As we learn more about what's really going on in a conflict, we start to take it less personally.
WIN for the company , WIN for the people
Of course, this approach is great for the company as well. Employees suddenly have the ability to look for better and more innovative solutions. By default, we all see our own part of the plot (just a few “threads”). We cultivate the ability to disagree with each other and see more of the cross-section by learning how to have fruitful discussions. We are able to combine multiple options and perspectives, which also leads to a better collaboration.
We get to know the other person's thinking, and we inspire each other. In a psychologically safe environment, we don't perceive the stimuli of the environment as an attack, but we see it as an unfolding of ideas. Alongside that, we also stop seeing disagreement as a personal attack or as an attempt of the other person to steal our idea.
How to start seeing conflict as an opportunity
- As a company, team or boss, you can encourage and reinvigorate people. The first step is to lead by example. Ask your team members for feedback often and actively so that you can improve yourself.
- Make sure feelings and emotions become a standard part of your lives - they are present anyway, just often hidden. Regularly ask your team members about their emotions, what they experience, and how they feel in different moments.
- Talk openly and discuss conflicts that have already taken place. Reflect on what you have learned from them, what you have figured out, and what you would like to do differently next time.
- It helps a lot to have personal relationships at work as well. It is important to understand that we are not machines and that we have our personal life stories that affect us at our workplace.
- Take time for prevention. I have a very good experience with retrospective. What I mean by that might be a little bit different to how it is used by agile, for example. I mean a more personal sharing—sharing how we do in collaboration, how we feel, what works for us, and what we need to do differently and why. It's often easier to apply the retrospective technique on work-related topics. We have a harder time talking openly about our relationships with each other.
- Learn to slow down in conflicts. Don’t rush. Don’t jump to the first solution after a few sentences. Let the discussion go deeper and see where it takes you - what ideas/opinions it leads you to. This provides each participant with time to understand how they feel, what they think and reflect on how others see the situation.