In Stephen Covey's book "First Things First" he talks about looking at a jar as the amount of time and energy you have, and a pile of rocks as your tasks. The big rocks are the important priorities the small pebbles are the non-essentials. Filling your jar with the big rocks first is a way of prioritizing the most important things to accomplish.
When trying to resolve conflict you do the exact opposite. Either as an active mediator, an objective third party, or someone involved directly in the conflict (by far the most difficult thing to do) — it usually works best to start with trying to get agreement on small issues. Your goal is to teach the parties how to discuss and come to agreements. Successful agreements at micro levels will help them learn and understand the strategies you are helping them develop. Those strategies will then be applied to more and more complex issues.
How does that work?
Very often, the first thing people agree upon is that they don't like mediation, or they don't like the mediator! This is actually a humorous way to introduce the concept of building strategic ways of communicating. If they can agree on at least one thing — no matter how silly — you congratulate them! Being very direct with people about the need to establish communication strategies is essential. You want them to understand this process, because you are going to teach them to use it in the future with every new conflict.
Building up to the bigger rocks
As the parties come to some small agreements, the mediator needs to write them down where everyone can see them. These are visual representations of successful agreements. Oftentimes, individuals in conflict with each other revert to all or nothing type of thinking. They also tend to dismiss those things that are successful and focus on the negative or difficult things (the big rocks). Having successful agreements identified — no matter how small (little rocks)— is proof that there is a way for them to find resolution, they just need to work at it.
Define the strategy
Once an agreement is reached, the mediator then needs to point out the process by which the parties came to that agreement. Most of the time, people are unaware of how they are communicating. Pointing it out gives them insight into what actually works or doesn't.
- Did they listen?
- Did they look at body language?
- Did they interpret tone?
- Did they reflect on their own experiences?
Each group of people will have a very different way of coming to agreement. Identifying exactly what works (and what doesn't) will help them develop a strategy for future communication.
One client work group identified their mediation as being "Las Vegas". What was said there, stayed there. From then on, whenever they experienced a conflict that needed more discussion, they invoked the "Las Vegas" code. This set everyone's expectation of the conflict to one of sitting down and talking through the issue to come to a resolution as they did in their team mediation.
Strategy for conflict resolutions
- Start small, reaching agreement on a minor issue (little rock) provides an outline for how to talk about bigger issues.
- Identify the process by which the agreement was reached.
- Try a slightly bigger "rock".
Continue to build the strategy, identifying what works and what doesn't work. Establish ground rules for how to use these strategies. Make sure to document each agreement, and how it came about — visually so everyone can see it. Eventually, these strategies will become ingrained in how the parties relate to each other. Like any new skill, it takes practice and commitment to establish, but the results will be better communication, understanding and resolution of conflicts — well worth the effort!