Resolved to Get Organized? . . . What about Organizing to Resolve?

This article previously appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of The Resource published by The McCammon Group and is reprinted with permission.

The average person spends roughly 150 hours per year trying to find documents, electronic files, and other information… That’s equivalent to almost a month of work. Some studies put the number even higher—at 10% of work time. Think of the lost productivity, the aggravation, the resulting in-house discord and, just as importantly, the hours that could have been spent simply enjoying life.

Now consider how many workplace conflicts result from lack of communication or miscommunication, and how often these lapses occur because the parties were “just too busy” to communicate effectively. When we talk about enhancing people’s capacity to prevent and resolve conflict, we need to include organizational skills in the conversation.

I learned as much as I could about organizing out of necessity, not curiosity. During a time of significant transition, my personal and professional organizational capacity dropped markedly. This, in turn, decreased my productivity, making it even tougher to manage normal demands, not to mention the added ones brought on by change. So I started reading. Little by little, I began applying the principles that made sense to me. I found that, with better organizing systems and skills, I was able to regain my footing, get through the transition and sustain higher levels of productivity and enjoyment, long-term. If it worked for me, I figured it could work for my mediation clients, all of whom are in transition of one sort or another.

Mediators offer a structured process for addressing and resolving conflict. When they are at the table, we help parties organize their thoughts, priorities, the topics of discussion and information related to each. But sometimes this isn’t enough. To get to the table—literally—and come prepared and in the right frame of mind, parties may need help addressing organizational issues at work or at home.

As mediators, we work with people who are navigating change driven by conflict. They are drawn away from their normal responsibilities to address a crisis. This takes extra time, energy and money and, barring some sort of miracle, nothing extra comes in.

Take a couple facing separation. Their lives were complex before their relationship fell apart. Both work. The children have full schedules of their own. Someone has to manage the mail, the finances, house upkeep, the sports activities, etc. Add to this long list of routine demands the emotional, financial and time pressures of reconfiguring their lives and it is surprising that any of them show up for mediation sessions, period, much less make good use of the process.

Or take a dispute between two busy people who work in the same office. They face plenty of organizational challenges on good days. To participate effectively in the mediation process, they have to devote added time to preparation which is exacerbated if they can’t find what they need.

Dispute resolution professionals spend a lot of time talking about how important it is for parties to learn how to think outside the box. That is the ultimate goal. But they can’t get there without first having a box and knowing what’s in it So, for many clients, the starting point is getting organized enough to know what they are facing by doing a thorough reality check, Some clients are able to express concerns about organizational challenges. In my family practice, it often surfaces as financial mismanagement or differences about organizing the children’s lives. It can be helpful to let parties know that disorganization is a typical byproduct of being in transition, and then address the issue as just that, one of the issues. Directing parties to books, organizational tools and other resources also can be useful. As lives have become more complex, interest in organizing has grown dramatically, and there is an abundance of information available.

For those who demonstrate a chronic lack of organization, but don’t raise it, it may be appropriate to identify the issue, most likely in a separate session. At a minimum, the impact of disorganization on the mediation process needs to be addressed. If one party regularly shows up without having found a certain document, despite earlier promises to do so, it not only slows the process and costs the parties more money, but can erode earlier progress. In family mediation, I typically meet with clients in relatively short sessions spread out over a period of weeks or months. Thus, I can guide them into productive activities, such as getting more organized, in between sessions. Most federal mediations begin and end the same day, or the next day, leaving the mediator no time to help parties address needs away from the table. So dispute resolution professionals in federal agencies must take the lead in helping parties cope with the organizational challenges that both create conflict and are exacerbated by it.

Training on organizational topics, such as time, space and information, are best offered as a preventative measure. This is particularly valuable prior to large-scale transitions, as they are ripe for creating organizing challenges and fomenting conflict. When this is not possible, parties should receive one-on-one help in organizing their documents, information, and thoughts prior to trying to negotiate a resolution. It is those moments when we feel ourselves spinning out of control that we are most open to receiving guidance. This presents an opportunity for ADR specialists to help parties understand the value of organizing, not only for the negotiation process, but for their overall productivity and quality of life, as well.


Dawn Martin

Dawn Martin is President of Martin & Laguna, a Washington, DC mediation firm serving families, businesses and public sector entities. In early 2007, Ms. Martin founded Simply in Place which provides productivity and organizing consulting services for individuals, families and small to mid-sized businesses. MORE >

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