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This article originally printed in BusinessComment, Dec 12/Jan 13.
When problems arise they can quickly escalate, given human nature and our cultural tendency to become defensive and take positions – or simply our need to save face. Escalation can lead to polarisation and festering unease, whether in internal matters or in external relationships. Morale and productivity can drop. This is not good for business.
These days, there have been significant advances in our understanding of how conflict arises, how to manage it and even how to prevent it - and how to achieve more collaborative approaches to resolving disputes. These give small and large organisations better opportunities than ever to build, maintain or renew important business partnerships and other commercial relationships or to bring difficult contracts and joint ventures to an end with the minimum of cost and time. Nipping things in the bud. In other words, we can all now be more effective at managing the risks inherent in unresolved conflict. The bottom line impact can be significant, allied to better reputation management and more effective customer and staff retention and project management.
What can we do to be more effective negotiators as we address actual or potential conflict? Here are some tips from experienced mediator and negotiator, John Sturrock QC, chief executive of Core Solutions Group.
Separate the people from the problem
Approach the issues with frankness and clarity, and always treat the individuals involved, whatever you think of them and their behaviour, with respect and courtesy. Avoid making assumptions about people; most people are trying their best in the circumstances in which they fi nd themselves. As the writer Margaret Wheatley has observed: “It’s not our differences that separate us but our judgments about each other.” Identify your own triggers and manage your own emotions.
Detoxify the language
Take time, pause before speaking. Choose your words with care. One word can make all the difference, as can your tone and manner. Don’t demonise or personalise. You can be clear and direct whilst also being measured, under-stated and courteous. But this requires self-discipline because, under pressure, we can tend to default back into defensiveness and antagonist language.
Search for the other person’s underlying needs and real concerns
In the jargon of effective negotiation, this is called identifying the interests of those involved, in contrast to their positions. What is this really all about? What are their hopes, fears, aspirations and worries? We can’t change the past but we can certainly infl uence the present and the future. Ask questions - and listen, really listen to the answers. Try and get into their shoes: how do they see it? As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand things from another person’s point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Make a unilateral concession - give to gain
The power of reciprocity is strong; if you understand what the other party’s needs and concerns are, you can offer something to address these, directly or indirectly. Don’t fear making a unilateral concession or surprising someone with a gift: it will very often stimulate a reciprocal response. This is all much easier if you keep in mind the Big Picture, the overall purpose, where your and their interests converge. Make sure you help people to save face.
Develop your options creatively
Search for the nuggets that create value. It’s usually not just about money. What nonmonetary possibilities are there? Use your imagination. Weigh up the pros and cons, the risks, the alternatives. Don’t be boxed in by bottom lines. Keep an open mind - the person with the greatest fl exibility will have the greatest infl uence on the outcome. Don’t just assert but look for objective justifi cation to support any proposals.
If you get stuck or need help, call in a mediator
The ideas discussed above are not easy to implement, especially in diffi cult circumstances. A skilled, independent mediator can provide the necessary context and structure to enable tough conversations to be carried out, to bridge gaps and build understanding. Often the communication chasm is the real problem. An experienced mediator will know how to help people to re-engage. In pulling deals together, managing workplace conflicts, resolving difficult disputes and breaking deadlock, a mediator assists individuals and businesses to find their own solutions.
Mediation has a fine track record here in Scotland and elsewhere. It is used increasingly in commercial contracts, employment disputes, claims against professional advisers, the financial services industry, sports governance, SME issues and disputes involving local and other public authorities. Consider trying mediation before resorting to litigation, tribunals or arbitration, or even internal grievance procedures. Many matters are resolved successfully in a day or two using mediation.
What do people say about mediation?
“I would like to thank you and your team for
your assistance in bringing such a long standing
complicated dispute between the parties to a
mutually acceptable conclusion. The mediation
process was instrumental in reaching a resolution
in a very complicated set of circumstances. It was
an interesting and rewarding experience, both
professionally and personally, to be involved in the
John Sturrock is the founder and Chief Executive of the Core Solutions Group, Scotland's pre-eminent provider of commercial mediation services. Core is also recognised for its innovative training and coaching in mediation, negotiation and collaborative approaches to conflict and differences. John Sturrock is one of the most experienced commercial mediators in Scotland and has been described in Chambers Guide to the UK Legal Profession as “the foremost mediator in Scotland”, while ranking in the top 10 mediators in the UK.