Most conflicts are dealt with successfully by the individuals involved without outside help. However, when a conflict rises to the level of needing someone else to get involved — that person must be as objective as possible. If either of the parties in the conflict feel the third party is not objective — it risks making the conflict even more complicated.
Let's look at a workplace issue:
Jennifer and Heather are working on developing an employee training program. Jennifer wants to have the program run virtually, and Heather wants to have employees receive hands-on training. Both have strong arguments for their positions and have been unable to come to an agreement. Neither one is budging from their position and are listening to each other less and less with each meeting. Out of frustration — Jennifer asks Janet to help them decide.
Janet is a peer of Jennifer and Heather, but is very close to Jennifer personally. Janet is also the primary trainer, and would have to do much more traveling if the training is done in person. Janet does not want to increase her travel, so she sides with Jennifer.
So what happens?
Heather feels completely shut out because her points are not being heard. She is angry that Janet got brought into it — it isn't her decision and Heather knew she would side with Jennifer. Heather is now preparing to escalate the discussion to their boss to make a decision.
Now — you have three people involved in a conflict, about to bring in a fourth! Because Janet was not objective in the conflict (she is friends with Jennifer, and the decision directly impacted her work) the issue isn't resolved and now there is not only a rift between Heather and Jennifer, but also between Heather and Janet.
Anatomy of conflict
Conflicts between parties involve:
- Emotions — when people become invested in an outcome, their emotions tend to get involved. Often, they are passionate about solving a problem, but that passion leads them to not consider all the information. It also causes them to become very entrenched in their position.
- Facts and information — not everyone has the same facts and information, and interpretations are different for each person.
- Opinions — there is no shortage of opinions about projects, people or problems. When in a conflict, those opinions tend to become shaded by emotions and much more intense.
- History — seldom are there two parties willing to engage in conflict without some sort of history between them. It can be positive, negative or neutral history, but it will all affect the current conflict.
- Stake in the outcome — the greater the stake in the outcome (more money, power, prestige, or just being able to say they are right!) the more dedicated to winning the conflict.
- No personal relationships: To be successfully objective, the new party cannot have personal relationships with the individuals in the conflict. Some people try to state that although one or both parties is a friend, they will be objective. This usually results in both parties being upset to a certain degree. Avoid mediating your friends' conflicts!
- Unaffected by the outcome: An objective third-party will be unaffected by the outcome of the conflict resolution, regardless of what takes place. An objective third-party will not worry about losing their job, offending a friend, or people being mad. It simply doesn't matter. The process of working through the conflict and arriving at an outcome (no matter what it is) should be the primary focus.
It is very difficult to guide others through conflict resolution if you are worried about how the outcome will affect you. This is when a mediator should be brought in. The parties in a mediation should feel as if the mediator is completely neutral. Often, this means both parties are equally irritated at the mediator! A mediators primary job is to guide parties through the process of conflict resolution, no matter the outcome.