Mediation is a familiar dispute resolution alternative with different approaches: facilitative, directive and, more recently, transformative. The first two techniques focus on resolution, while the transformative method centers on empowerment and understanding and the belief that conflict is a breakdown of interaction. Authors and mediation experts Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger have said that the transformative method:
- Advances the concept that disagreeing parties can resolve their dispute better than a third individual issuing a decision can.
- Addresses the underlying causes of disagreement.
- Heals damage to relationships.
Transformative mediators pay careful attention to assisting and encouraging the disputants without providing direction or offering solutions.
Transformative mediation techniques used in court settings and other venues can be adapted by line managers for staff disputes. Disagreeing individuals in an organizational setting often continue interaction after the dispute, and underlying feelings or perspectives not revealed or addressed may fester and erupt in a subsequent event, resulting in fractured cooperation, deeper discord or, worse, termination and litigation.
The tools of transformative mediation are not complex but require patience. Any approach that looks to get below the surface issue to underlying attitudes will take time. The challenges to a manager are to avoid making judgments by words, tone or body language; appearing to take sides; taking control of the process; and interjecting opinions or possible solutions.
A Look Below the Surface
- In initiating a transformative mediation-style session, the manager should set the following ground rules:
- This is a voluntary process. Either party can end it at any time if one of them suspects it’s not working.
- The disputants can best solve the problem, and the manager’s role is simply to help them reach a positive outcome.
- The conversations will be confidential; however, if a violation of a major organizational policy is revealed, the manager may have to alert an HR professional.
- The parties should treat each other respectfully and courteously.
- The goal is to reach an understanding that both parties can abide by.
Allow the employees to decide who starts the discussion. Listen and apply the different transformative techniques described below at the appropriate times:
Reflecting. Capture the content and tone of an individual’s words: "You’re upset that Ed hasn’t been handling his part of the project." The employee has a sense of being heard, and the repetition reinforces the comments for both disputants to understand. A reflection also can draw out an unspoken reaction: "Don, you were frowning; do you disagree?"
Summarizing. Encapsulate several points made throughout the exchange by one or both parties: "Ed, you seem frustrated because the project has fallen behind, and Don, you feel the timetable was unrealistic." This technique provides a recap and helps keep the parties focused on the issues. Summarizing also can emphasize common areas: "You both agree it was a complex project." Or, it can highlight differences: "Don, you think responsibilities were clear; Ed, you indicated that there were no defined roles."
Questioning. Ask open-ended questions to promote clarification or elaboration: "What do you want Don to understand?" Or, to both parties: "How would you like to see this resolved?"
Checking in. Inquire about status when the discussion appears to be nearing a stage of decision or impasse: "Have you discussed this point fully?" Checking in also can be used to gauge the value of the meeting: "Has this been helpful?"
Caucusing. Talk to one of the individuals alone when encountering a hardened position or reluctance to communicate with the other disputant.
Transformative mediation concentrates on resolving problems of interaction between individuals and not solely on settlement of a dispute. When both parties have fully aired their positions and each has gained insight into the other’s reasoning, the climate is prime for the parties to determine the best course of action going forward—for both the immediate dispute and future issues. Working relationships are less likely to be damaged when the individuals in dispute listen to each other, share opinions and feelings, and determine their solutions.
The author is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi and a mediator for the Maryland Commission on Human Relations.