Last month my colleague posted a blog and hosted a webinar exploring the question of whether the language we use to talk about conflict limits the outcomes in conflict resolution and whether the term Conflict Engagement might open more possibilities. This subject, combined with some very unsatisfactory recent mediations, has sent me into a deeper exploration of Conflict Engagement and back to a 2001 book by Bernie Mayer, PhD. Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution.

In his book, Dr. Mayer introduces a tension between avoidance and engagement in the use of mediation across all of its applications. He shapes the avoidance premise around forces that naturally discourage people from willingly investing in a mediated solution. Among them are that people actually want or feel the need for the power and authority that comes from an advocate rather than a neutral and they need a process and a negotiating partner that allows them to address the root causes of the conflict rather than just patching it up.

To move from avoidance to engagement there needs to be conditions and processes that will put the parties in the best position to participate openly and creatively. Ideal conditions start when there is just enough importance and risk to motivate parties to willingly engage in mediation but not so much as to drive them to legal or administrative alternatives; when the parties feel comfortable they can speak for themselves rather than through representatives; and when they believe the parties at the table are willing to honestly explore “what” needs to be fixed in addition to the “how” of the resolution.

In most workplace mediation programs, whether out of the best of intentions or institutional requirements, the decision to mediate rests with the employee. Regardless of how well suited the conditions are and how prepared the parties are, when an employee opts for mediation, the organization offers it. Further, when the conflict arises from a claim of discrimination, harassment or reprisal, the risk to the parties jumps way up and the dynamic becomes less flexible, making it much less likely that there can be a meaningful discussion of systemic issues. Most often, organizations have little interest in considering any systemic changes without sufficient risk or legal mandate.

Employees cede all the power of their claim when they accept the terms offered by management and sign a settlement agreement. For management, to reach a settlement they must offer something of value, sometimes feeling as though they are establishing a precedent just in the interest of settling. Parties on both sides often feel the risks are too high and the rewards too much in doubt.

This all being the case, here are some thoughts about engendering greater engagement in workplace conflict.

For mediation programs still in development, introduce and facilitate open exploration of options for:
The program to encourage more “what” dialogues to balance the “how;”
Establishing conditions of safety and commitments from the parties to address the risks; and
Exploring conflict engagement options such as conflict coaching for when conditions for two-party dialogues or mediations would not be optimal.

For mediating within established and relatively inflexible mediation programs:
Be deliberate in assessing the risk/reward levels of the parties to gauge the parties’ motivation for a mediated solution and how much farther they may be encouraged to work toward it; and
To the extent possible, honor the root cause concerns as among the issues for resolution and allow them to play out more.

In all cases, as conflict engagement specialists, we need to recognize and honor the parties and their needs. When they are locked in emotion or resistance, when the employee has lost confidence in the organization and the organization is unable or unwilling to make changes to address root causes, then we may only be able to help the parties articulate and possibly agree to work toward, the conditions needed to move forward. While not a settlement, this is engaging in the conflict.

Dianne C. Lipsey