“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rumi
Although in conflict situations there is sometimes an obvious person who has caused harm and a person who has been harmed, such as in criminal matters, this distinction is not always as obvious in workplace disputes.
I frequently conduct workplace mediations, sometimes after a workplace investigation has been completed to restore working relationships and sometimes as an alternative to an investigation. By the time a formal complaint has been made, the complainant and the respondent are deeply ensconced in their positions as perceived harmed and harmer.
While there may be a single identifiable incident – an argument between colleagues, an unexpected decision made by a manager, a single act by a co-worker – most such incidents are part of a complex and non-linear continuum of different people’s stories, which often start in different times and places.
It may be a workplace friendship in which one person has slowly turned away from the friendship. It could be a number of subtle covert behaviours, such as the tone in emails, body language in meetings, non-responsiveness to communications, or more overt behaviour such as shunning or blatant rudeness.
Psychotherapeutically, our perceptions are shaped through subjective lenses and we interweave with each other inter-subjectively. As humans, we build cases in our heads about the other which then get overlaid with assumptions and biases to prove we are right – and they are wrong.
We then create a narrative justifying our behaviour which is a reflection of our sedimented beliefs. In these more nuanced types of conflicts, it becomes less obvious who has caused the harm and who is the primary person harmed. Each party is convinced that they are the injured party and that the other is entirely to blame.
Unpacking each and every incident or assumption in a mediation seldom brings relief.
What does bring relief, is structuring the joint session around a ‘no blame – both accountable’ framework, which requires both parties to reflect on and acknowledge their respective roles in the escalation of the conflict.
The process involves a different methodology to facilitated mediation, revolving around three seminal questions for each party:
Question 1: What do I value about my fellow worker/s?
This question is an application of the Gestalt principle by reversing what is in our focus with what is in our periphery. The expression of gratitude by each party for the other brings shared value in the forefront and returns criticism and negativity to the periphery. This question resets the emotional tone between the parties and creates a foundation of safety in anticipation for the second question.
Question 2: How have I let my co-worker/s down?
This question is central to the restorative mediation approach and is a recognition of the shared co-creation of conflict. Often a worker is of the view that the other party is 99% to blame. The worker is then encouraged to reflect on his/her 1% of contributory responsibility. This question resets the narrative of blame between the parties and is founded on the principle that if we take no responsibility and believe nothing is our fault, we are powerless to change anything. If we only blame others, then we must wait for them to fix it. The more responsibility we are willing to take, the freer we are.
Question 3: What do we need to work together better/move forward better?
This is a practical question which follows the first two questions and establishes pathways for changed behaviours between the parties on the basis that re-building trust and respect is not something one can legally agree to in a mediation agreement – it needs to be gradually re-earned by both parties demonstrating to each other, their willingness and ability to adhere to these pathways over time.
The value proposition underlying the methodology is that in order for the parties to move forward from their differences they need to take joint responsibility for what got them there in the first place. This joint responsibility requires courage and graciousness by both parties which is more likely to occur if they both feel intrinsically valued by the other.
Through this process, in this way, a ‘circuit break’ is established which enables the working relationship to restore in order and creates a renewed pathway for for both parties to move forward.
Client testimonial: The ‘no blame – all accountability’ approach to dissolving workplace conflicts and mending team relationships is unique and effective. The process enabled us to all move forward with grace and dignity to successfully restore our relationships”
Ruth Levy practiced as a lawyer for 9 years before transitioning into human resource management for 20 years. She started her own consultancy practice in 2008. She has also worked as a psychotherapist. As a nationally accredited mediator, Ruth combines her legal, therapeutic and HR backgrounds to conduct workplace mediations for a number of clients in Australia.
PETA BLOOD 5 Apr 2021 16:18
Thank you for sharing your ‘no blame – both accountable’ framework for workplace conversations Ruth. The three questions promote responsibility taking, perspective, empathy and future orientation, in what can be very challenging situations to deal with. Workplaces thrive on healthy accountable relationships and they can be challenged when things go wrong. Taking a no blame accountable approach can provide that circuit breaker for all involved to move forward. Would love to hear what others think.
MARG THORSBORNE 6 Apr 2021 06:59
I too love the “what are the ways in which you may have let your colleagues down” question. Since knowing Ruth and finding out more about her approach, I have used that with great effect. Asking people to think more positively about their colleagues is also an interesting challenge for some!
CHRIS STRAKER 6 Apr 2021 16:13
I really like question 1- setting a tone that looks at what we often overlook : why we do well, but take for granted and don’t see. With that as a starting point the next phase of questions has a foundation upon which to build.
LINDA JANE SAYERS 8 Apr 2021 01:02
I love this. What you focus on is what you see. So focus on something different. And the idea of radical responsibility – that conflict cannot ever happen unless there are two or more parts, therefore we have to recognise our own part in this. This reminds me of a child I worked with who spat on me one day because I made a rookie mistake and told him to calm down in a moment of complete helplessness. I didn’t connect, I didn’t hear him, I didn’t show any compassion for his situation and he let me know in a stunning style how rubbish I was right then! We did meet to talk about it after and we did both talk about what we did to cause the conflict. We both had a part to play.
MICHELLE STOWE 18 Jun 2021 19:32
I love this too Chris. Thank you Ruth – a wonderful scaffold to move towards a more peaceful path – usually everybody within such a conflict will want this but we often don’t how to get there – thank you for offering such a compass.
CLARE NOCKA 14 Apr 2021 01:00
These are three very helpful questions. I love the shift to joint responsibility. The ‘case we build in our heads’ is so often true in workplace conflict. The Rumi quote gives a beautiful framing.
LESLEY PARKINSON 19 Apr 2021 04:35
Thank you for sharing your insights. My take away is shifting to the periphery as an approach to starting the process of resolving conflict.