Steven Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, the first such center to have developed a mediator credential based on training, experience and performance. He is also a co-author of “The Exchange: A Bold and Proven Approach to Resolving Workplace Conflict,” which details the four-stage mediation strategy that allows managers to effectively deal with workplace conflicts. I talked to Dinkin about how managers can develop their own mediation style and promote a healthy office environment that can help stop arguments before they start.
What is the most common type of employee disagreement that managers deal with?
There is a wide range of disagreements managers deal with, but the most common revolves around communication issues. As the modern workplace has become increasingly diverse — multicultural, ethnic, age and gender — issues of communication have become more prevalent. Individuals from varying backgrounds might think they are saying the same thing but it is often misinterpreted as each individual is looking at the issue through his/her own prism.
What can managers do to promote cooperation among their employees and stop arguments before they start?
At the National Conflict Resolution Center, we have developed a strategy called the ART of communication. The manager begins by encouraging effective listening. People tend to focus more on what they are saying rather than what they are not saying. Often the best resolutions come from listening carefully to what the other person has to say. Being an active listener sends the message that you are genuinely concerned about the other person and the dispute.
Beyond effective listening, the manager should encourage the use of positive language. This might seem like a no-brainer, but any frustrated manager knows how easy it can be to slip into negativity once an argument begins. If you keep the language positive, whoever you are addressing will likely mirror what you are doing.
Why do you recommend starting mediation sessions with an icebreaker?
Most people will be ready to complain, debate or argue at the beginning of any conflict-based conversation. They have marshaled their most compelling arguments and are ready for battle. If you go straight to the topic of controversy, most people will quickly get stuck in defending their positions and attacking their opponents. That’s why you need to do something different and begin with an icebreaker. This is not just a light introductory activity. It is a way to non-confrontationally initiate a conversation about difficult issues.
An ideal icebreaker asks for a person’s take on something that’s both work-related and positive. For example, if the conflict involves two employees working on the same project, you might break the ice by asking each of them how they became involved in the project and what they hoped to achieve.
What should managers do about employees who seem to constantly argue?
What the manager should not do is ignore or avoid the conflict. If the conflict is left unattended, it typically will escalate to the point where it will impact others on the team or may result in one of the employees leaving the organization. At the National Conflict Resolution Center, we recommend that managers proactively address the conflict using a strategy called the Exchange. The Exchange is a four-stage informal process based on mediation theory that enables managers to effectively intervene and manage conflict before it escalates and becomes unmanageable. The Exchange encourages discussion of all the issues in a dispute — even the intense, emotional issues — in ways that are more productive than a typical gripe session. The Exchange can be used to break down barriers and create changes that have a positive effect on your whole workforce.
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