Conflict Resolution Part 4: At the Table

8240974_xxlNow that we’ve talked about a lot of the underlying causes of conflicts and the needs beneath them, lets talk about the actual process of trying to resolve a conflict between two or more people in some kind of mediated session.


By the time a conflict has gotten to the point where people are pissed off and not speaking and it’s a struggle to get them into a room with each other, your chances of positively resolving the conflict are pretty low, which is why the rest of the series of articles focuses on understanding conflict and unraveling it before it gets that far.

Now, there’s lots of different ways of getting people to the table. A mediation is different in some ways from a facilitated session where you, as the group leader, have the power to render a judgment and kick someone out of a group. It helps to understand what type of conflict resolution session you’re engaging in.

First, before there’s ever a conflict, it helps if the group has an agreement for conflict resolution. I’m amazed at how many groups have no behavioral agreements at all, much less an agreement about what behavior would lead to a mediated session. Such as, if 2 people have an issue and can’t resolve it, they must go to one of the 2 mediators established by the group. If this is a conflict between two sovereign group leaders, there’s no such hierarchical commandment that they must follow, but let’s assume for the moment that the agreement exists within a group and that the parties involved must agree to the mediation or resign from the group. Or, that the people in question are reasonable enough to agree to a mediation.

Thus, the first step is, you learn about the conflict. You will have the tendency to “side” with the person you know best, or, the person whose side you heard first. I’ve heard this called Polarizing, and it’s pretty common. It’s why in a community conflict people rush out to tell people their side first; we seem to instinctively know that people believe the first person they hear. We will also tend to “side” with the underdog, or the person who portrays themselves as the underdog. (Keep in mind that the one who comes across as the victim, isn’t always the victim.)

Don’t get mad at yourself for the instinct to take a side. Just acknowledge that yup, there you are falling for the polarizing thing. And then, work to gather more data and understand the whole situation. Just be aware of your instincts and whenever you find yourself taking a side, question it thoroughly. Interview all the parties involved. Try to do this in person, because you can learn a lot from body language, but, sometimes Skype or email are the only way to go for the data gathering, particularly if the parties live far away.

You’ll be doing a lot of listening. And fact checking. You want to understand those underlying needs. And, though your job as a mediator isn’t necessarily to lay blame (or, for that matter, to be someone’s therapist), understanding what happened is crucial. It’s important to understand if one of the parties is blatantly lying, because that impacts the next steps.

If you catch one of the parties in big, blatant, or consistent lies, it’s unlikely the conflict resolution is going to have any kind of positive outcome. I hate to be a Debbie Downer about that, but if one of the parties can’t be truthful, that’s a pretty big red flag. I’ve been in a mediated session (I was one of the two parties, not the mediator) when the other party began lying to gain the sympathy of the mediator. At the time, I didn’t know he was lying; he was talking about how his mother was dying of cancer and he was going to have to leave town in order to be with her.

So sometimes the lies aren’t necessarily easy to suss out; a chronic liar is usually a pretty good liar. Some of us have the instinct to sniff out a lie, some of us don’t. One of the best ways to suss out a liar is to get them to tell you about some things that someone else said, and then actually follow up and talk to that other person. You’d be surprised how many lies become clear when you take the direct approach.

One of my biggest pet peeves in any conflict is the “Well, people told me that they hate what Person B is doing.” “Who is people?” I ask. “Well, I can’t tell you that, they don’t want me to give their names.” In most cases, I ignore this as any kind of useful evidence. Sometimes, a liar will give out names if I pressure them, assuming that nobody would be direct enough to actually contact those people.

And the house of cards falls apart when you do, indeed, contact those folks. That’s why investigation is important, because you need to understand the story beneath the story.

Another red flag is abuse. In so many cases, there isn’t enough evidence, it’s Person A said, Person B said, however, sometimes there were witnesses and there’s a consistent pattern of behavior. In a situation like that, particularly involving physical abuse, your services as a mediator aren’t really what’s required–getting the victim out of the situation is. Oddly enough, it’s often the victim, who is stuck in the codependent spiral, who is trying to make the mediation happen so that they don’t have to acknowledge that it’s time to leave the relationship. The mediation is actually a stalling tactic on the victim’s part.

This is one of those areas that starts to stretch beyond my pay grade, but if I tend to look at my “job” in an instance like this as the same obligation that a therapist has. A therapist holds the things shared with them as confidential, unless they learn of someone’s intent do do themselves or another harm. If I feel that someone is in danger, then it may indeed be my obligation to involve the police, or help the victimized party get out of that situation. This is an extreme situation, and honestly, this is why I wish I had more training.

I’m not going to go into the nuances of what you should do in this situation as that’s a whole post on its own, and in this case, if I stumbled into something like this, I’d probably ask the advice of Selena Fox or someone else who has far more pastoral counseling training than I personally have.

Getting People to the Table
Making the assumptions that while there’s gnashing of teeth, there’s no blatant lying, and there’s no risk of escalating physical abuse, once you have gathered all the info you can, your job is to get the affected parties into a room together. Now–depending on the nature of the conflict, this meeting might involve a larger group, or, just two people. A larger group might be warranted if two members of a coven are fighting, and have been fighting in a way that has been disruptive to the whole group or involved the whole group. Or, if there’s a complicated family dynamic with multiple injured/angry parties.

However, what I’d suggest is that you try to first meet with the core affected parties, and meet with as few of them as possible. Often the primary conflict boils down to just two people. The reason to meet with them alone is pretty simple; people will put on a bigger show with an audience, and will be less likely to be vulnerable, less likely to back down. If you can actually get the two main parties to listen to each other, and communicate, and open up, then they can resolve their issues with each other first without any group shaming going on, or perception of group shame.

Remembering those underlying needs, and shadows, always keep in mind how people’s egos and self identity will drive their actions. The poorer someone’s self esteem, the more they will be driven by wanting people to have a “good” opinion of them. The perception of loss of status is tied into our ego identity and people will dig in their heels, even if they know they are wrong, rather than face the perception of the group shaming them for being wrong.

Example: The Core Components
I was once asked to do a conflict resolution process for a family in a dispute. Once I started gathering information about this particular dispute, I realized what a mess it was, though the dispute followed a fairly logical escalation. The person who asked me to intervene had been subject to the “I’m not speaking to you” end game by the other party and wanted to find a way to keep the communication door open. She wanted me to meet with the whole family in a mediated session to address the issues of the “Black Sheep” family member.

Except…as the information unraveled, the nature of the conflict became clearer to me that it was really a conflict between two primary players, and everyone else was just caught up in the fallout. Neither one of those players was going to back down in front of the rest of the family, so to address anything, I was going to need to get the two of them alone in a room together.

That’s about as far as I got in the info gathering process before one of the parties pulled the plug on the mediation.

Is it Mediation or a Judgment?
Now–I’m using the terms mediation here, and I should clarify that I’m painting with big brush strokes. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that sometimes I’m negotiating a conflict; if I were a true mediator, I would have no stake in the conflict. If I’m a group leader facilitating a session for two other group leaders, I still have a stake in it because I want things to go well.

Similarly, if I’m a group leader facilitating a mediated session for two of my group members, it might be more accurate to call me an arbiter or even a judge, because I will at some point be rendering a decision. A mediator is just there to make a safe space to listen and gets out of the way, letting the two parties come to terms with gentle guidance. If I’m a group leader, it may ultimately come to me to render a decision that one or more of the parties might get asked to leave the group, for instance.

And yes, that can be a wrenching decision particularly in Person A said, Person B said, when you don’t have all the data. In that case, I tend to make my decision based upon how people act within the process of the conflict resolution itself.

However, I am more than happy to render a decision based on people’s behavior during the mediation process itself. How we act when we are under stress tells a lot about us. And if someone turns into a raving jerk, I may realize that that person really wasn’t a good fit for my team in the first place.

Mediators, Arbiters, and Power Dynamics
You should be aware of how the power dynamic shifts depending on your role. If you’re a group leader arbitrating a dispute, then you have a dog in the game. The people involved in the conflict will feel more pressure to be believable, for you to be on their side, since you have power to make a decision about their involvement. So they may feel more pressure to lie, for instance, or fib. Whereas, the idea with a mediator is that this person has no power to render a decision, and thus, is a safe place to vent about what happened.

In many cases a mediation will be between two parties who have a vastly different power dynamic. For instance, and employee and employer, or, a coven member and coven leader, in which case, a neutral mediator is really important, since the person without power has to feel that they will be heard. The mediator also has to have enough respect that the person with power is willing to come to the table and listen and not just brush this off as their group member whining.

In a dynamic like that, your job as the mediator is probably (depending on the situation) to help the powerless person have a voice with someone who may not be willing to listen. On the other hand, part 4 of the conflict resolution series deals with when the underdog is the problem person in the group. More on that later.

Conflict Resolution and Communication
Essentially, your job as a mediator, negotiator, or arbiter, is to unravel the truth as best you can, and to get people to listen to each other. You’re trying to help them hear each other. Sometimes, what one person is saying sounds like “Wa wa, wa wa, wa wa wa” to the other person for various reasons.

It could be that they each have a different primary learning modality, or that they are the exact personality types on the Enneagram that shouldn’t work together.

Here’s a few examples.

Jumping to Conclusions
Let’s say that the conflict in this case is that Person A believes Person B hates them and is out to get them. When you have interviewed the various parties, the best you can understand is that Person B is a little annoyed by Person A, in large part because Person A is so defensive all the time. However, Person B doesn’t hate Person A.

Now, here’s a pickle, because ultimately the conflict is resolved by convincing Person A that Person B doesn’t hate them. However, future conflicts are kept from happening if Person A realizes that their own behavior is exacerbating things and that they are jumping to conclusions. So really, this is Person A’s nightmare; nobody is that defensive without self esteem issues, and to find out that people are irked at them, annoyed by them…major blow to the ego.

The Four Levels of Reality tool that I’ve mentioned before is a big helper here to help Person A to understand that Person B doesn’t hate them. But, a further commitment to personal growth work or therapy is ultimately going to help Person A be a healthy part of the group. And perhaps that’s outside of the scope of a mediated session, but it’s part of the process of longer term conflict resolution in a group.

What Did You Say?
Another example is when people just are failing to communicate. In one instance, I was asked to facilitate a board meeting of a group that just wasn’t on the same page. The group leader was strong, ambitious, a little harsh, definitely a control freak, and motivated by a drive to be a professional. She had been putting in long hours to run events on her land, and she wanted people to step in and help, but her volunteers always seemed to drop the ball. One volunteer in particular wanted to help with things like the newsletter, but she blew deadlines and failed to get things done. She had great ideas and was highly motivated on the idea level, but she had terrible follow through. Basically, the two of them were a personality match made in hell.

When this group leader sent out long emails about her ideas for future events to the board email list, she would hear nothing back from the board, and she would sit there and wonder if anyone cared and fume and get frustrated and sad.

Let’s look at the group’s side. They had volunteered their time to make the event happen, but then the group leader became a task master and was demanding more from them than they felt they agreed to. She wanted regular meetings which they had to fit into their schedule, and she sent out long emails that they didn’t have time or patience to read. Or, the emails seemed like the group leader had things in hand, so they didn’t feel they needed to response.

They had no idea the group leader was looking for a response from them.

So what I said was, “Can you guys hear that Group Leader needs more feedback from you guys, that even if all you have time to type is ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’ that that is what she’s looking for?” And they nodded and understood. They hadn’t realized that was what was needed.

And then I said to the group leader, “Can you hear that your group is a little overwhelmed by all the communication and structure you are throwing at them? That they may not have stepped into the level of volunteering that you are asking of them? Can you work to make more space for what they have time for, and to listen to their needs?”

And she understood that. It hadn’t really occurred to her that she was asking too much, given that for years she had taken on the entire task of putting on the event. I pointed out that she was a driven, motivated individual and this event was her baby, but just because she wanted it and was willing to put in the 80 hour week, didn’t mean that everyone else was, and that she had to downscale what she was expecting of her volunteers.

I also pointed out the obvious tension, that the group members were always on edge, waiting for the group leader to snap at them. That the group members wanted to help, but they were also afraid of how angry the group leader seemed to get. However, I also pointed out that some of the group members were not meeting the obligations they had agreed to, and that this had caused stress for the group leader.

Basically, as a neutral party, I was able to communicate a lot of the subtext messages in a way that took the tension out and helped them look at it not as the two sides in conflict, but as outsiders, so they could see how they got into the spaghetti snarl and how they could find their way out.

If you really want to learn how to mediate disputes, I highly recommend getting training in Nonviolent Communication. Restorative Justice Circles are another method, and many areas offer classes in mediation training, though the rub is you’ll have to pay out of pocket in order to get training that you then won’t be able to charge for. Don’t worry; I have a longer series of posts addressing leadership, fundraising, and money coming up.

When You Shouldn’t Bother
I’ll offer an example of many of the behaviors of a problematic individual who will cause repeated conflict in your group in Conflict Resolution Part 5.

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