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CONFLICT RESOLUTION: Shifting People from Positions to Interests

As a manager, supervisor and certainly, HR professional, you may find yourself right smack in the middle of mediating employee conflicts. By the time they reach you, tempers are flared and each person is firmly dug into a hard line of “I will only….” or “I won’t,” and “He must…” or “She had better….” language. It could be situation like this:

You are the manager of a Creative Department at ABZ Publishing Company.  Last Wednesday, during your regular status meeting with John, he mentions some real difficulties he is having with one of his newer staff members, Sarah. He even confessed that he was going to use the recent drop-off in sales as the perfect excuse to get rid of her. You were surprised by this because when he hired Sarah, he was very impressed with her. At that time, he described her as very bright and energetic, with the kind of innovative thinking this company sorely needed. When you questioned him about the situation, he indicated that Sarah regularly complained about the types of projects she was getting, and was late completing some routine design work. Other staff members in the department have come to you because they are tired of her constant grumbling. He was clearly frustrated and had decided that “either she shapes up or she’s gone, one way or the other.”

This morning, you received a call from the HR Manager. Sarah had come to her last week complaining about her job, and John, in particular. She said that when she was hired, she was told that she’d be able to fully participate in creative client teams, be involved in interesting projects, and gain new design skills. She expressed her disappointment that she had been given no voice in project teams. In fact, her role was limited to taking notes and preparing documents. Last week, when she asked John if she could join a new creative team, he said “no.” Sarah described her work as boring, repetitive and run-of-the-mill. She stressed that “either she gets to do what she was promised or she’s headed to WNX, our competitor.”

The HR Manager has agreed to act as Mediator, but would like you as Department Manager to participate in the process. She wants to get together this afternoon to discuss the situation.

The HR Manager has developed a good mediation process; but you are concerned that both Sarah and John appear to be welded to opposing black/white solutions. Furthermore, neither solution as it stands is acceptable to you; however, they both have legitimate arguments. You are also afraid that they are already closed to hearing any compromises.

Jennifer Beer and Eileen Stief in The Mediator’s Handbook suggest that these fixed, seemingly non-negotiable positions, often manifest themselves in a list of demands, threats, fixed solutions, proposals or points of view. Clearly what we see in this scenario.

Neuroscience has taught us that these statements typically reside in our limbic (emotional) system and are not necessarily the product of good problem-solving or rational thinking. More often, they are emotional shortcuts designed to conserve energy and provide a quick, simple solution – that satisfies that person’s needs –which translated means “I will suggest the easiest solution for me.”

To be helpful in this mediation process, you, as the manager, recognize that it will important to find a solution that benefits the interests of all the parties involved – both John and Sarah. You decide to suggest a process that starts by posing key, exploratory questions. Here, the goal is to uncover each person’s concern, need or desire underneath the position. You decide to suggest to the HR Manager that they start the interview by asking:

  • In this situation, what is really important to you?
  • Can you help me understand why it is important to you?
  • What is really bothering you about this situation?
  • How does this affect you?
  • What do you hope to get resolved in this situation?
  • What do you value most in the resolution of the situation?
  • What are you afraid will happen if things continue on this same path?
  • Is there something you think that so-and-so doesn’t understand about your situation?
  • It sounds like x matters most to you, is that right?

If either John or Sarah go back to his/her “position,” you will suggest that they shift the focus back to interests by asking:

  • What does getting your solution really do for you?
  • What does getting your solution tell you about how (this person, your supervisor, this organization) feels about you?

Once discovered and articulated, one of us will restate the interests of each person for accuracy and agreement. Having both Sarah and John hear each other’s interests will help them to gain better understanding of what’s important to each other. It will also counter any negative personal beliefs that might have been formed in the midst of the conflict.

Beer and Stief suggest that you also listen for the “golden nugget” – the interest that shows some positive, caring or generous concern for the other person. Getting John to articulate the positive attributes that caused him to hire Sarah, and the good work she has done will soften Sarah to John’s interests. Showing John what Sarah sees as John’s good qualities as her supervisor, and why she was excited to work at this company in the first place, will soften him towards Sarah’s needs.

You recognize that once a shift is made, one of you can capture commonality between the two and suggest small, bite-size agreements that will satisfy both their interests. Finally, those interests can be re-stated as “criteria” in decision making and aid in discussion and resolution.

Positions are almost instantaneous; interests are not. They take deeper thought, introspection and understanding. You now realize that this process may take some time. John is an Introvert and may need to get the questions ahead of time so he can work through his answers. Sarah, on the other hand, is an Extrovert and she may need a more open, free flowing discussion with someone she trusts, in order to get at her interests.

You now feel ready for this afternoon’s meeting. You chuckle to yourself because you suddenly realize that in the past you would have spent hours trying to think of the best compromise for the two of them, and how to present it in a way that would be acceptable to them to get out of this mess as quickly as possible. But now, you realize how much you are looking forward to learning what’s really important to both of them.

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