A couple of years ago I was asked to mediate between 2 feuding peers (let’s call them John and Sam) whose behaviours had passed the standards of acceptability. As so often happens, each had their own support base, so a social rift was forming. They held slightly different roles, so had to coordinate with each other, and the supporters for each came mostly from the same roles as they did. Instantly it was apparent that this had become a little tribal and may have become something bigger and more entrenched.
Rather than attempt mediation cold, I felt a quiet counselling conversation with each of them might give them a chance to be heard, to reflect on their positions and to make choices about how they wanted the mediation session, and their future, to go. I took a non-judgemental, inquisitive and respectful stance that didn’t attempt to advise or take a privileged position. And that was the only position I could take – I hadn’t been involved in their interactions, so they had all the knowledge, while I had none.
I spoke with John for a little less than an hour, him explaining his versions of events, rights and wrongs, and me, when he was ready, steering the conversation away from blame, toward reflection and a preferred future. I never argued. I never told him he was wrong. I never told him that his employment was being threatened by his own behaviour. I never told him what to do or how to think. With only a little encouragement, and some curious speculation on my part about assumptions, feelings, intentions and what a preferred solution might look of feel like, he made his own choices about softening his stance and where he’d like to go from there.
Next I spoke with Sam for a similar length of time. The conversation followed a similar pattern, and it was soon clear that both guys were honest in their versions of events, but that they saw them, and attributed meaning to them, in quite different ways. Sam was quick to also soften his stance, as he wanted to protect his job and enjoy coming to work – choices he made without coercion.
It was apparent to me that both John and Sam were tired of the argument and were looking for a way to move forward with their dignity intact. Both were cooperative and fundamentally well-intentioned, and so my intervention was seen by them as a potential solution rather than another source of conflict.
Needless to say, the mediation session went very well and both guys worked cooperatively and civilly after that, volunteering to give each other a hand where they could going forward. This is a bit of a fairy-tale-ending, but the reality is that they did it and stuck with it– they simply needed a way of getting there. My role was purely as a counsellor and facilitator for what they already wanted (even if they hadn’t brought that to conscious awareness until then). They decided what they wanted and they did the work.
This event reinforced my belief that most people want to work well, and work well with others, enjoying being a respected, liked and productive part of a team. Certainly job safety played a role here, but so does personal safety at a more primal level – the dispute was verging on physical violence, which both would have felt compelled to take part in, but neither wanted for every possible reason apart from self-esteem. Crucially, the most important first step in these conversations was to create a safe, non-judgemental, non-coercive conversational environment, and for us each to build a trusting relationship within it to the extent possible in such a short time. Confidentiality was assured, and even here, in this article, you can see hasn’t been compromised.
This recollection is of a single dispute but is representative of many more over the past 5 years. Typically, they are anchored by fear, misunderstandings and assumptions, with solutions arising from safety, acceptance and curiosity. Yes, facilitating outcomes like this is a skill linked to my work as a counsellor, and is a part of any good psychological or counselling degree, typically falling under a family therapy style of approach. It is also one that can be learned at a practical level for workplace matters as a part of our conflict resolution and neuromanagement training modules.