Mediators soothe interoffice discord

At loggerheads with a partner or co-worker? Bring in a mediator

Mark Ortman, mediator for Resolution Now, said mediators can be a great way to solve interoffice squabbles and problems, especially when all other more common methods of problem solving have failed and the two sides are stuck.

   If you’ve noticed a rise in blood pressure or clouded thoughts while interacting with your boss or a coworker, you might have a conflict on your hands. Disagreements in the workplace will inevitably happen, said Mark Ortman, mediator for Resolution Now, but using an open style of communication, asking the right questions and carefully choosing your words can help solve these tense situations.
   If, however, your blood is boiling and you’re tired of talking to a brick wall, it may be time to bring in a mediator.
   “When people are upset, their ability to think creatively diminishes,” said Ortman. A mediator can help two parties see choices they couldn’t before, he said.

    How to defuse a conflict
    Just as a bomb squad expert can disarm a bomb by clipping the right wire, you can quiet a potentially volatile social situation by asking the right questions.
    Ortman said he uses a three-step approach when solving a disagreement. The first step is to acknowledge what is happening on both sides of the situation. The second step is to clarify what is happening and to figure out what it actually means. Understanding someone else’s view, and the reasons behind it, are as important as sharing your own, he said. Lastly, once everything is out in the open, you can begin to talk, and look for a solution.
    Throughout the process, ask questions, said Ortman. Questions open up dialogue, statements don’t.
    Moonwater, mediator and director of the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, said it is also important to confront assumptions you may have.
    “A conflict is a reciprocal relationship, and you’re not in it alone,” she said.
    In arriving at a resolution, Ortman said ,both sides need to be satisfied with the outcome. “One person winning at the expense of another is not a good solution,” he said.

    Open more than just your ears
    The three steps described above may sound easy, but they’re not. Understanding the messages behind the words and asking the right questions is not always an easy task, and this is where a mediator can help, said Ortman.
    According to Ortman, there are two ways a mediator listens. The first, “horizontal listening,” is simply the words someone uses to express their ideas. The second, “vertical listening” is what the words actually mean. Tone, non-verbal communication, sarcasm, gestures and choice of words are all elements that can drastically change the meaning of words, he said.
    It is not, however, enough to just understand the message sent by someone. You need to go further and find out what tangible things are part of the dispute, said Ortman.
    A disagreement may arise over something that is already tangible — money, for instance — but it also could surface over respect. Although you can’t put respect in your pocket, it is created by a collection of tangible things. You feel respect when others display certain actions, words and behaviors toward you, said Ortman. It is the discovery of tangible behaviors, which make up the definitions of our emotions, that can help resolve a disagreement, he said.
    Many times Ortman said someone’s personal history triggers their reactions to certain behaviors. For example, if your high school gym coach used to point and yell — and you were threatened by that — the same behavior coming from someone else might also produce that feeling.

    Enter the mediator
    So you’ve tried everything and your horns are still locked. Going to court is not usually appealing and can leave a dent in your wallet. Using a mediator is an option to avoid the nasty world of arbitration and litigation.
    “Sometimes, people don’t even know how to solve — or even approach — a conflict,” said Moonwater. “It’s also natural for people to make assumptions about others. People become locked in conflict, because they are intimidated to explore their assumptions.”
    According to Moonwater, people will recognize they need a mediator when all resources within the workplace have been exhausted and they feel stuck.
    “When the neutrality of the situation has been compromised, people usually look to a third party,” she said.
    Using a mediator brings in an unbiased party, something you really can’t get in the workplace, as everyone there has some sort of relationship with each other, said Moonwater. Mediation allows people to see new resolutions to the situation they couldn’t see before, she said.

    Watch your mouth
    Although you may not be dropping expletives around the office, you could be using other offensive words and behaviors on a regular basis. Using certain words in solving a dispute around the office or in every-day communication can help minimize problems.
    According to Ortman, there are 12 commonly used words that usually cause a negative reaction among people. These words, such as “have,” “should,” and can’t,” are usually preceded by the word “you.” Using these words conveys a message of limitation, which many people find too aggressive, he said.

    Is a little dispute part of a bigger problem?
    Sometimes a two-party conflict may be the product of the larger working environment.
    According to Moonwater, many workplace conflicts arise over work styles, personality clashes or office culture.
    Within these broader conflicts, Ortman said issues of respect, appreciation and trust are common problems he sees in his role as a mediator.
    Unfortunately, he said, many people under the stress of work don’t usually think about others, which can result in conflict. He added that our “culture of competition” in the United States creates the notion that every situation has to have a winner and loser, something that is counterproductive to solving a disagreement or encouraging healthy communication.
    In addition, technology — such as voice mail and e-mail — often distances us and can muddle communication, he said.
    According to Ortman, workplace communication can be improved by creating an empowering environment, where respect for others is a top priority.
    An office motivated by fear can get results, but usually only in the short term, said Ortman. The best long-term motivational tactic is respect.
    “We can’t motivate people, we can only create an environment where people motivate themselves,” he said.
    If the way a business is organized — not office culture — happens to create communication problems, facilitation could be an answer, said Moonwater. She said having facilitation sessions with an office group that is facing problems with its styles of communication can streamline productivity, open up healthy dialogue and reduce group and personal conflict.
    Disagreements will inevitably happen, because every individual views life through their own lens. Creating an environment where proactive communication is practiced, however, can help squash unhealthy conflict.
    Confronting issues early is always a good idea in the hectic business world, said Moonwater. Having the courage to express yourself, confront assumptions and open dialogue will make for a better working environment, she said.
    If you don’t know how to start things off, Ortman said, an old standby is often a good place to begin.
    “An apology works wonders for getting down to talking — if it’s sincere,” he said.


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