“I just wanted to let you know that what I got from that course was some of the most useful, valuable information and the techniques we learned serve me every day. I find your newsletter and gems I pick up from your website terrific, too.
“Here’s my struggle regarding conflict resolution: I have all these good insights (thanks again) relative to the conflict going on around me, particularly between co-workers, but no real authority to intervene. With just the smallest amount of mediation, these people could learn to communicate effectively and the ambient negativity would decrease immeasurably. How can those of us who have learned some of the skills you teach “share the wealth” (so to speak) in a way that doesn’t increase conflict?”
Let me begin my answer to Kate’s question with a story.
On being a problem solver
When I was fresh out of grad school in my mid-20s, I worked first as a career coach at a college. One floor below my office was the dean of student’s office.
One day in the cafeteria, I heard the dean mention a problem he was experiencing with generating a report on the computer. I thought to myself, “I know how to do that.” Though the dean didn’t really know me, I waved from down the long cafeteria table and said, “I can show you how to get that report, if you’d like.” After lunch, I walked with him to his office and in a few minutes he had the report in hand.
Not long after, as I walked by his office, I saw the dean hunkered down in front of a computer with several of his staff around him. By the body language, I could see there was some kind of problem. I paused in the hallway and listened, then tapped lightly. The dean turned. “I can show you all how to do that, if you’d like.”
Soon, whenever the dean or his staff ran into computer problems that didn’t quite warrant getting IT to walk across campus, I’d get a call. Sometimes the problems were technical annoyances, sometimes they were human (as in, the person didn’t fully understand how to use a particular program’s nuances). I had a knack for both kinds of problems and was happy to be helpful.
About a year after that, the dean retired and the assistant dean was promoted to the dean’s job. I was surprised when I got a call from her. She said, “I understand you’re good at solving problems. I’d like you to come interview for the assistant dean job.” Thus was born my first serious career in higher education, which I left as a vice president in 1997 in order to work full-time in conflict resolution.
Offering help without the expectation of anything in return
I’m fond of the dean story because it taught me a powerful lesson in solving problems without the authority to do so: That the offer of help is best when it comes with no strings attached.
I didn’t expect anything in return from the dean and was just enjoying solving the puzzle the computer program held for me. I love a good mental challenge and that was what was in it for me. I’ve never been a deliberate career ladder climber, instead choosing to do work I enjoy and see what comes next as doors open. So it never even occurred to me that my offers of help would end up in a significant promotion.
I think the “no strings attached” approached is crucial when you feel the urge to offer informal help in a conflict. If you’re perceived as doing it for self-serving reasons, those you’re approaching may well sense that and be turned off.
When to step in, when to stay out of it
Like Kate, I see lots of situations where my conflict resolution skills could be put to good informal use. If you’re a mediator, conflict coach, or a manager with decent conflict resolution skills and interest, I bet you do, too.
Over the years I’ve developed a few rules of thumb (meaning I can override them on occasion, of course) to help guide me in deciding when informally intervening in conflict is the right call:
•I rarely step into the middle of conflicts in my own family or close friends. I am, after all, not remotely impartial in those circumstances and, even though I know that a few well chosen words can help, I also know that my own opinions about the people involved are coloring what I do and don’t say. I must tread very carefully if I choose to step in to those situations because there be dragons (of my own making).
•If the conflict is unfolding among colleagues or during a meeting, I will often step in informally without much fanfare (more on this in the next post). Before doing so, though, I carefully consider if I have a strong bias toward or against one of the players, since having one should make me as cautious as I am among family and friends.
•If someone calls me and asks me to step in as a favor and I know the players, I usually approach it much the way I would a professional situation: I contact those involved and let them know a mutual acquaintance thought I may be able to help. I approach these calls with no expectation that they’ll want me to help; taking that attitude helps me avoid pressuring them in any way and instead using the call to explore what might be possible.
•I am cautious about stepping in to situations that are outside my expertise or strongest skills. If I think I can only half serve someone and that there’s someone out there who can do a better job of it, I’m much more likely to suggest they contact that person for help. In conflict situations, it seems to me that poorly serving someone is worse than doing nothing at all.
As you can see, the call to step in or stay out of it is, in my book, comes from an assessment of my own biases and my own skill in that situation or with the specific people involved.