Even though it is vital to know conflict resolution skills yourself, it’s also vital to know when to call a third party for help.
My neighbor complained recently that the folks living above her had been generating some unusual and distracting sounds for the last several months, and she was reluctant to complain directly to them. Ordinarily I’d coach someone through a situation like this on how to talk to them directly. This case, though, had some complications, and instead of coaching her, I suggested she go to the building manager and ask her to look into it. Similar situations might come up at work where we feel a need to say something but don’t want to be the one speaking. In conflict resolution studies, we often call going to the third party “going to a higher authority.”
There are four good reasons to call in a third party.
1. A neutral third party doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of the dispute that the disputants carry. The interpersonal dynamics are missing if a neutral third party raises the issue to explore it. In my neighbor’s case, she was angry after putting up with the noise and not saying anything for several months, and might have said something she would have regretted if she’d tried to address the issue herself.
2. The third party can ask questions from a lack of information that might be inappropriate coming from a disputant. For example, there might be special conditions existing that the disputant should not ask about, but a neutral, uninformed party can raise. In this case, the condition was serious illness, which had disrupted the family.
3. The third party, like a building manager or a good HR manager, will have some special insight, expertise, authority, or training in these situations, which tends to calm people. There might be regulations that apply that need to be explained by someone who understands them and doesn’t just guess at them. This third party can sort out what is fact and what is assumption.
4. The conversation won’t start with that dreaded word, complaint. The third party brings neutrality and authority to the situation, and that lowers the emotional level of the discussion. A complaint can be stated in very heated and angry terms that include demands and threats. The third party doesn’t start there; rather, he or she starts with an observation or a question, not a challenge.
The first guideline for raising a difficult issue is to start with a neutral observation: I’ve noticed recently . . . It’s come to my attention . . . I’ve become aware that . . . The neutral statement gives people room to explore and discuss before escalating to complaining and threatening, and increases the chance of a peaceful resolution and continued good relationships.
When you’re angry or feeling put upon, you can’t be as neutral as necessary to get this more desirable outcome, so call in someone who can. There’s strength in knowing what the best course of action is, not weakness in calling in another expert.