It was an early start on a grey rainy day for the 4 ½ – hour journey to the venue and on arrival I found that we had only 2 rooms booked – an office and a very cosy storage room no bigger than a cupboard. This was a workplace dispute where the breakdown in the relationship between colleagues had been ongoing for 2 years and had now reached the point where the tensions had escalated into work-related stress; ill health and absenteeism.
Following telephone preparation calls, I met and settled the parties in their rooms and made sure the agreement to mediate was signed. Both then came together for the joint session where I reintroduced the principles, process, roles and how we would work together for the day before inviting each side to make their opening statement and what were the key issues they wanted to talk about. Thus far, it was a very typical mediation.
“Mike” spoke about how he felt that “Johan” had continually treated him differently to other colleagues, disregarded and ignored him, did not support him and even sabotaged his work. Mike reluctantly discussed how this sustained treatment had created a serious negative effect on him physically and mentally.
What happened next though was a first for me; the parties essentially reached an agreement within the first 15 minutes of the joint session. Instead of delivering his opening statement, “Johan”, with genuine astonishment and regret apologised profusely. Johan admitted to treating Mike differently but explained that this was because he knew that Mike was incredibly bright, capable and in fact had significantly more knowledge than the others including Johan himself. Over the last 2 years, someone been viewed through a negative lens with behaviours being associated with a negativity bias – the horns effect almost looking for the worst and finding reason to justify this instead of being more open-minded to their encounters.
How was it that I could help these colleagues resolve their issues that had been ongoing for 2 years in 20 minutes? It’s simple – I trusted the mediation process;
- Created an environment where each felt safe to allow their voices to be heard, knowing that the other person would be open to listening – for the first time in a very long time. Encouraging each to speak freely both about intention and impact.
- Managed the process so that each person was appropriately prepared and then moved through all of the phases of mediation – although it seemed resolution was reached so quickly. We still went back to exploration to ensure that everything that needed to be discussed could be and did not rush to a conclusion.
- Worked through the detail of the issues at heart to ensure that each felt heard, understood and an agreement of what the future would look like. Also helping them to decide what would happen should things unravel between them again.
Although the word bullying was not used in this case, several elements of this could have been present. Today, as we mark the end of an anti-bullying week, a spotlight has been shone highlighting the damage that can be created – sometimes deliberately, but in my experience, more often unintendedly on how we treat each other. Around the country children in school have been learning that “we can respectfully disagree with each other i.e. we don’t have to be best friends or always agree with each other, but we do have to respect each other.” Words that we as adults may well agree with but can find difficult to put into place once conflict emerges.
Conflict is a natural part of life and can be used positively to stimulate thoughts and ideas. But, if tensions, difficulties, frustrations are not addressed they can quickly spiral to create serious harm. Please remember that even when there seems to be little hope, mediation works as a very powerful tool to help people to move beyond conflict to reconciliation.
Tracey is a mediator, psychologist, consultant and Faculty member with CEDR, for which she is also a Board Trustee. Tracey has particular expertise in the areas of managing change, organisational development, and performance management. She has worked in both a clinical capacity in general nursing, psychiatry, neurological rehabilitation and in non-clinical roles including HR, recruitment and organisation development.