Imagine you’re at a dinner party, and someone starts to argue with another guest. The conflict escalates, and soon, people are staring daggers over dessert. It’s uncomfortable, it’s disruptive, and it makes it difficult for anyone to enjoy themselves.
The same dynamics can develop when co-worker conflicts go unresolved. Team relationships suffer, productivity drops, and everyone ends up feeling tense and unhappy. It also results in lost revenue for organizations: workplace conflict was estimated to cost companies $359 billion a year in the US alone in 2008, according to global research by human resources specialist CPP, Inc.
To prevent this from happening, managers must be able to mediate disputes effectively. Workplace mediation is the process of intervening in a conflict to facilitate a resolution. Conflict management is an important skill for leaders to have because it can help prevent small disagreements from spiraling out of control.
There are a few different techniques mediators can use to help resolve conflicts. In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into how and why conflicts arise, signs and symptoms of conflict, and strategies for healing the team.
What is a conflict?
A conflict is a disagreement between two or more people, which can be verbal, physical, or emotional. The root cause of conflict can be anything from a difference in opinion to a personality clash.
There are four main types of conflicts:
1. Task conflicts: issues may arise when people have differences in opinion about how to complete a task or achieve a goal.
2. Process conflicts: disagreements about the best way to manage a process can lead to collaboration and workflow obstacles.
3. Relationship conflicts: personal differences between team members, such as differing personality types, cultural backgrounds, or communication styles, can erode relationships.
4. Value conflicts: communication may suffer when team members have different opinions about what’s important or valuable. These conflicts could involve professional or personal issues.
Why do conflicts happen?
Workplaces are melting pots of personality types, cultures, ideologies, communication styles, and so forth. So, it’s no wonder that conflicts arise from time to time.
Sometimes, problems crop up when two or more people just don’t gel. At other times, a change in the environment or situation sparks conflict. For example, two people who usually get along well might start to butt heads if one of them is promoted and the other feels overlooked.
How barriers to communication fuel conflict (if left unchecked)
Communication failure is often at the root of conflict, and this disconnect can feel even more pronounced as we increasingly rely on digital tools. In a national survey of workplaces, 70% of respondents identified poor digital communication as a frequent barrier to their work, leading to roughly four wasted hours a week.
In workplaces, the very differences that make teams dynamic and innovative can also cause tension and disagreements. This is why it’s so important to set clear expectations for everyone, foster a culture of respect, and use productive workplace mediation techniques when necessary.
To understand how conflicts form, let’s take a look at seven common barriers to communication that can cause friction if they go unaddressed.
- Language barriers: if team members don’t share a common language, this can lead to communication difficulties and missed meanings. Spoken language, written communications, and technical jargon can all be sources of linguistic barriers.
- Cultural barriers: every culture has specific values, beliefs, and customs. In diverse workplaces, these differences can lead to misunderstandings and conflict if team members aren’t aware of or respectful of each other’s backgrounds.
- Physical barriers: physical challenges, such as distance, different time zones, or poorly organized workspaces, can make communication difficult and lead to conflict. Plus, it’s easy to misread someone if you rarely communicate face to face.
- Emotional barriers: emotional triggers can cloud judgment and make it difficult for team members to handle certain interactions positively or productively.
- Interpersonal barriers: personal differences, such as personality types, work styles, and body language, can lead to disagreements and conflict.
- Gender barriers: gender differences and assumptions about gender can lead to communication difficulties. On top of this, gender perceptions often differ by culture, which can further lead to stereotypes or conflicting expectations.
- Perceptual barriers: internal biases can cause team members to have preconceived ideas about other people. Perception bias is at the root of many misunderstandings, and it can cause conflict to escalate quickly in high-pressure situations.
Signs and symptoms of conflict
A few warning signs often indicate a conflict is brewing. If you see any of the following, it might be time to take action.
- Team members start to avoid each other.
- Communication becomes more negative, critical, and sarcastic.
- Gossip and rumor-mongering have increased.
- The environment is tense, and people are short-tempered with each other.
- You notice office cliques developing.
If you see any of these signs, it’s important to nip the conflict in the bud before it has a chance to escalate.
What are the consequences of unresolved conflict?
Unresolved conflicts can have a number of negative consequences, both for individuals and the team as a whole.
On an individual level, unresolved conflict can lead to:
- Stress and anxiety
- Sleep problems
- Low morale
- Burnout or poor health
On a team level, unresolved conflict can lead to:
- Reduced productivity
- Missed deadlines
- Poor-quality work
- Increased sick days
- Physical altercations
What is workplace mediation?
Mediation is a process where an impartial third party (the mediator) helps two or more people communicate and reach a mutually agreed-upon solution. Mediation is often used to resolve workplace disputes, but it applies to other types of conflicts as well, such as family or legal disputes.
The mediator facilitates communication by guiding the talking points and preventing people from veering off topic. Above all, they encourage the people involved to come up with their own solutions. They don’t make decisions for the parties, and they won’t force anyone to agree to anything.
The overall goal of mediation is to help the parties resolve their differences in a way that’s mutually acceptable.
What are the benefits of workplace mediation?
Workplace mediation can prevent conflicts from boiling over until they become irreconcilable. The sooner a mediator intervenes, the greater the chances a problem can be resolved without further damage. Some advantages include the following:
- Reduced stress and anxiety for everyone involved
- Improved communication and relationships
- Increased satisfaction with the conflict’s outcome
- Reduced cost and time investment compared to going to court
- Better team collaboration and higher productivity
- Increased awareness of personal biases
Workplace mediation gives the involved parties more control over the outcome. So, instead of feeling like they’ve been disciplined without being heard, team members get the chance to voice their concerns and work through their differences. When done well, mediation can make team members more considerate and better equipped to manage conflict the next time it arises.
When to use mediation
Here’s when it’s time to roll out the mediators:
- Workplace disputes
- Family disagreements
- Neighborhood disputes
- Contractual disagreements
- Business partnership disputes
Generally speaking, it’s best to jump in as soon as conflict arises. The longer it goes on without mediation, the harder it will be to resolve.
In severe cases when things like harassment, bullying, or malpractice are involved, you’ll need to skip mediation and escalate the issue to HR or another authority.
Formal vs. informal mediation: which one should you choose?
There are two main types of workplace mediation: formal and informal. The type of mediation you choose will depend on the severity of the conflict, your relationship with the involved parties, and your personal preferences.
Formal mediation is structured, and it usually takes place over the course of several meetings. It’s often used in serious workplace disputes and involves a professional mediator or independent third party. Formal mediation can be expensive and time-intensive, and it often creates high stress for all involved. Ideally, you should reserve this method for big conflicts or when someone specifically asks to take the formal route, as it can have lasting negative interpersonal effects.
Informal mediation is more relaxed, and it can take place in a single meeting. It’s often used to resolve smaller disputes and supervised by a manager or team leader. An informal approach is less expensive, time-intensive, and stressful, making it the best option for most workplace conflicts.
How to prepare for workplace mediation
Here are a few steps you can take to prepare for mediation.
- Collect any evidence you have to support your case. This could include emails, contracts, or witness statements.
- Write down the main points you want to make during mediation.
- Consider opposing points that may come up, and try to outline clear, concise responses. This will help you stay calm and focused during the real discussion.
- Think about what you’re hoping to achieve from mediation. What is your ideal outcome?
Speak to a professional mediator or lawyer to get advice on the best way to approach mediation if the issue is more serious.
What happens during mediation?
Mediation typically takes place over the course of one or more meetings. The first meeting is usually exploratory, and it’s used to assess whether mediation is the right option. If both sides agree, they’ll meet again to start working toward a resolution.
During mediation, the mediator will encourage the parties to communicate with each other openly and honestly. The next step is to identify any issues and facilitate discussion. The mediator will also provide information and advice, but they won’t make decisions for the parties.
The aim of mediation is to help the parties reach a mutually acceptable agreement. This agreement can be written down and signed by both sides.
A step-by-step guide to workplace mediation
1. Lay the groundwork
Preparing for the meeting involves deciding on the format and structure you want to use. If you’re meeting in person (the optimal choice), make sure you book a private room where you can speak freely and not worry about people needing to use the room you’re in.
If you’re meeting virtually, opt for video conferencing over phone or text. You should also lay some ground rules, such as expectations about tone, questions, interruptions, desired outcomes, and so on. The ultimate goal is to create an environment where everyone feels safe to share their thoughts and opinions.
2. Open the meeting
The mediator should start by explaining the purpose of mediation and how it works. Go over the ground rules, and make sure everyone understands and agrees to them. After that, each party will have a chance to share their side of the story. It’s important to let everyone have their say without interruption.
3. Encourage active listening
When tensions are high, it’s crucial to pay attention to the language, tone, and structure of your discussion. Encourage everyone to practice active listening, a technique where you listen to the other person carefully and try to understand what they’re saying.
You shouldn’t interrupt and should only speak if you have something important to add. Active listening can help to build trust, resolve conflicts, and improve communication. Here are some tips on how to do it effectively:
- Listen without interrupting. Let the other person finish talking before you speak. If you catch yourself interrupting, it’s your ego kicking in. Try to remember this is about understanding the other person, not pushing your point across.
- Paraphrase what the other person has said to make sure you understand them correctly.
- Ask questions if you don’t understand something.
- Try not to judge or criticize what the other person is saying.
- Show that you’re paying attention by making eye contact and nodding your head occasionally.
- Keep an open mind, and be prepared to compromise.
- Practice active listening regularly, both at work and at home.
An example of active listening in the workplace:
You: I’m sorry, can you say that again? I didn’t quite catch what you said.
Them: I said that I think we should try a different approach to this project.
You: So, you’re saying that you think our current approach isn’t working, and we need to try something new?
Them: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
4. Facilitate communication
Facilitation is about making sure everyone has a chance to communicate their views openly and without fear of retribution. If you’re the facilitator, your goal is to ensure everyone is listening to each other carefully and to keep the conversation from becoming toxic.
For example, you might ask everyone to take turns speaking or write down their ideas before discussing them as a group. Here are other techniques to facilitate communication:
- Brainstorm solutions. Brainstorming is a technique where you come up with as many ideas as possible, without judging or criticizing them. It’s a great way to generate new ideas and find creative solutions to problems. Brainstorming as a group also allows everyone to contribute and feel like they have a say in the outcome. Read our brainstorming tips guide for more ideas.
- Use “I” statements. An “I” statement is a sentence that starts with the word “I.” Expressing your thoughts and feelings in this manner puts the focus on your perspective without attacking or blaming the other person. For example, instead of saying, “you’re always coming in late,” you could say, “I feel frustrated when I come into work, and you’re not here yet.”
- Avoid making assumptions. In the heat of a conflict, it’s easy to make assumptions about what the other person is thinking or feeling. However, these assumptions are often wrong and make the situation worse. Instead, ask the other person what they’re thinking or feeling, and accept their answer.
5. Be aware of body language
Body language is a form of nonverbal communication, including posture, facial expressions, and gestures. For example, if someone has their arms crossed, and they’re avoiding eye contact, this might be a sign of anger or defensiveness. On the other hand, if someone is leaning toward you and making lots of eye contact, this might be a sign that they’re interested in what you’re saying.
Body language can often reveal how someone is really feeling, even if they aren’t saying it aloud. Research suggests that 60% to 80% of face-to-face communication is nonverbal. “All of these cues bring energy and emotional nuance to our message,” says leadership expert Erica Dhawan.
When listening to someone, try to keep what’s known as an ‘open posture,’ which means not folding your arms or legs. If you’re talking remotely via video, angle the camera so that you’re level with it, rather than looking down. While you’re talking, try to look directly into the lens (no easy task; it feels far more natural to look at someone’s face!).
6. Take a break
Taking a break is a good way to reduce tension and give everyone a chance to process what was already discussed. This is especially true if the disagreement is escalating or if anyone feels like they can’t think clearly. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up on a resolution; it’s just an opportunity for everyone to calm down and collect their thoughts.
If the conflict is becoming too heated, you can also suggest coming back to the issue at another time.
7. Negotiate and compromise
Once everyone is speaking openly and actively listening, it’s time to work toward a compromise. Together, the parties involved should hash out some ideas for the route ahead. It’s important to remember that compromise isn’t about winning or losing; it’s about finding a solution that’s acceptable to all parties.
Here are some tips for negotiating:
- Listen to the other person’s point of view, and try to understand their needs.
- Express your own needs clearly, and be honest about what’s most important to you.
- Be willing to compromise, so you can reach a solution everyone feels good about.
- Come up with creative solutions by thinking outside the box.
- Take time to consider all of your options, and don’t rush into a poor decision.
8. Create a written agreement
Once you come to an agreement, put it in writing. This written agreement should include what each person is going to do and a timeline for achieving it. Having a written agreement will help keep all parties accountable.
9. Follow up
A follow-up timeline is useful for making sure all parties are holding up their end of the deal. Decide in advance when you’ll check in, so everyone knows what’s expected of them. Then, compare the resolution from your written agreement to the current situation.
Have things improved? Is everyone communicating effectively? Are there still barriers preventing a solution? Does the work environment allow everyone to follow through on their commitments? If not, you might need to revisit the issue and figure out a new solution.
10. Keep communication open
It’s important to keep the door open in case the discussion needs revisiting. This means being willing to talk about the issue again and even scheduling a review meeting a month (or months) later to see how everyone is getting on.
Also, let attendees know how which communication channels to use and best practices for using them. By keeping communication open, you can prevent future conflicts and build trust within your team.
Workplace mediation tips for success
- Begin early. Mediating as soon as a conflict starts will help to prevent it from escalating.
- Be clear about what mediation is. Explain the process to both parties, and set expectations.
- Be impartial. If you’re the mediator, don’t take sides or show favoritism. Encourage employees to see each other’s points of view.
- Encourage honesty. Tell attendees that it’s okay to express their feelings, but that they should do so in a respectful way.
- Prevent personal attacks. If an employee starts to attack another person, gently remind them that personal attacks are unproductive and won’t be tolerated.
- Keep emotions in check. Remain calm, and encourage employees to do the same
- Be patient. Some conflicts take a long time to resolve, so it’s important to stay committed and keep working at it.
- Avoid criticism. Try not to criticize any of the parties involved, as accusations will only make the situation worse.
- Be flexible. Be willing to listen, learn, and try different mediation techniques until you find one that works.
- Ask descriptive questions. Descriptive questions refer to specific behaviors or actions. For example: “What did you do when you found out the project was behind schedule?” Descriptive questions can help get to the root of the problem while removing assumptions and attacks.
- Talk about prevention. Consider how to prevent similar conflicts in the future. As part of the resolution, always come up with suggestions and guidelines for improving communication or workflows.
- Use the right communication channels for the job. Whether your team is remote or in-house, it’s important to use the right communication channels. If possible, try to host a video call or in-person meeting so that you can see each other’s body language and facial expressions. Use chat apps for casual check-ins post-meeting, and back up any claims or issues with data from project management tools or other resources to ensure objectivity.
Conflict is a normal part of any relationship, whether it’s between co-workers, family members, or friends. Remember that it’s not always a bad thing; conflict can be an opportunity to improve team collaboration, interpersonal relationships, and organizational culture.
Follow the workplace mediation tips above to identify the problem, and be as generous as possible when evaluating other people’s motivations. The more you listen and try to understand, the better the outcome will be.