Fostering Health in the Workplace:
Healthy relationships: dealing with conflict – 19 June 2007
John Sturrock QC of Core Mediation spoke to a packed lecture theatre in Scottish Widows. We are grateful to Scottish Widows for their hospitality, many of us enjoying being in their spacious atrium for the very first time.
Clearly, a combination of the topic and the notable speaker led to there being a big turnout – and from a whole variety of work backgrounds, from container shipping to commercial law, from IT to banking, from Edinburgh City Council to the Church.
In introducing John, Iain Archibald of business matters spoke about Royal Mail Alan Leighton’s “7 Cs” – the 7 characteristics of a successful Corporate today. One of these is conflict – handling conflict well and then moving on together as a team. That requires healthy relationships. By no means all conflict happens in healthy relationships.
John started by pointing out that conflict can lead to a great deal of loss:
- Low morale
- Reduced motivation
- Reduced turnover
- Diminishing of the bottom line
Conflict can be particularly perplexing when people are looking deep down for meaning in their workplace. Conflict can torpedo that quest.
John recounted his first story. A senior executive in an organisation was, he thought, moved sideways in a change in the business. This created tensions for him, he got stressed, became ill and needed time off work. He raised a grievance and went through the regulatory procedures. Eventually, the matter came to mediation. By now he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. There came an important stage during mediation when the man and his wife met with senior representatives of his employers, in the same room. The man was asked to say how he really felt about things, and his wife described not least the devastating effect the saga had had on their family. The senior colleagues came to appreciate the human aspects of the work trauma. They recognised the consequences and that it had overflowed into the lives of innocent family members. The fact that his colleagues listened and worked with him to reach a resolution meant that the man was able at the end of the day to say: “My faith in you as my employer has been restored.”
John said the ideas behind mediation are not new. They can be found in writings throughout the ages, including the Bible. Mediation offers an opportunity to re-discover and adapt these ideas to our own complex times.
Conflict, grievances, complaints – how do we deal with these in today’s workplace? The DTI is consulting on this topic, recognising that we need to find new ways through.
Bringing us now to our very own time and workplaces, John asked us to think for a moment about what it feels like to experience negative conflict at work, unhealthy relationships as he called this.
John then invited us to suggest some of the symptoms of these, and we came out with e.g.
- Diminishing of respect
- Deterioration of trust
- Lack of communication
- He moved us on to consider a diagnosis of unhealthy relationships; i.e. why do the above symptoms appear? Some answers he elicited from us were:
- A sense of not being in control, being a victim
- Being under time pressure
- We put up barriers
- Others put up barriers
- Being quick to blame – blame others or possibly ourselves
- The wrong person in the position
- Lack of communication
Most conflict, said John, arises in fact from lack of communication or from miscommunication.
Then came John’s most memorable slide – a speech bubble which said:
“I know you believe you understand what you think I said. But I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”
To illustrate the point, John told us his second story. It was about a woman brought into a business to help sort out its finances. The business was in a difficult position. People were on edge. Unfortunately, in the midst of the pressures a senior colleague of the woman’s completely misinterpreted this one remark she made in a brief phone call: “It might be too late.” She meant one thing by that statement – something non-threatening in her mind. He took it to mean something entirely different and saw it as a threatening statement. Their relationship deteriorated and within a few weeks had reached the stage that the employee received a compromise agreement (there’s an irony!) and left the business. Lawyers got involved. (Later, mediation was introduced and, in a remarkable series of meetings, explanations and apologies helped to bring the matter to an acceptable conclusion.)
Miscommunications sow the seeds of conflict. So what are some solutions?
- Build communication bridges
- Listen, really listen and hear: seek to understand their side of the story
- Ask questions
- AA EE RR: acknowledge, accept, explore, explain, recognise, reassure as in:
- Acknowledge people and how they feel
- Accept them as they are
- Explore with them their needs and concerns
- Explain how you feel and why you are taking the stance that you are
- Recognise their viewpoint and feelings
- Reassure them you can see where they are coming from
- Separate people from the problem
- Value people even if you don’t like their values
- Always show courtesy and respect
There will always be conflict wherever there are people. It is how the people handle it that matters. Will people really “hear” one another and understand one another?
John told his next story. A senior partner in a professional firm found him/herself dealing with a very disappointed, angry client. The senior partner listened, asked questions and acknowledged the client’s anger. There was a good outcome: the client felt they were heard, that the hurt they felt was understood. Said the senior partner at the end of the process: “I now understand the human side and the hurt you felt.”
John then shared some of his thoughts on the place and value of mediation.
What is mediation?
- Bringing in an independent facilitator
- Helping people to understand each other
- in private
- in a safe environment
- Identifying underlying, real issues and concerns
- Finding solutions which work for the parties involved
- Helping to restore healthy relationships – or managing the acceptable alternatives which are better than outright hostility, thus bringing closure at least.
John gave us his final story. A woman came into conflict with the person in charge of her organisation. Mediation was sought. They met and decided that they had two options: to stay under new conditions or to leave on an agreed basis. Option one was chosen and she returned to her job but things did not work out satisfactorily, so both parties were able quickly to move to option two which amounted to a private understanding and a good departure.
So mediation is about finding common ground. John cited several testimonies as to its effectiveness. One was after a saga that rumbled on for 7 years before mediation was brought in. Legal entitlement and positions were one thing. Emotion and expectation added a further dimension and were critical. That made for complexity. Mediation worked. Why?
- The parties got fully committed to finding a solution and settling.
- The parties were fully prepared as they entered the mediation process, meaning they recognised in advance the value of settling or not settling, the risks involved, and the costs of not settling.
- The key players and decision-makers were all present and involved, not just spectating
- The mediator acted as the voice of reason and, when needed, poured oil on troubled waters.
By now we were clocking the huge all-too-human aspects of dealing with conflict. In conflict we get to see humanity at its worst but also at times humanity at its best, at its spiritual best:
- Loving one another – in the fullest sense of the word?
- Finding meaning at work
John offered us that list humbly, saying e.g. he had personally experienced instances where it had been appropriate to use prayer in a situation of conflict.
You don’t have to call yourself Christian to appreciate the above. John cited a new business book about the quest for meaning at work that some may find helpful: Meaning Inc.: The Blueprint for Business Success in the 21st Century by Gurnek Bains – available on Amazon.
We live in times of unremitting change but also of opportunity. We can do so much more in the workplace to make our work fulfilling and productive.
John quoted from Derek Bok, a former Dean of Harvard Law School writing a decade or two back, so referring to our current juncture:
“Over the next generation, I predict society’s greatest opportunity will lie in tapping human inclinations toward collaboration and compromise rather than stirring our proclivities for competition and rivalry. These may be the most creative social experiments of our time.”
Finally, John issued us with a practical challenge:
“Make a difference this afternoon: think about a relationship that needs to be addressed … and address it.”
There followed a Q & A time in which several people were no doubt thinking of their own past experiences, e.g. colleagues being at loggerheads, or even whole departments completely missing each other. Said John, you can act as a humble broker by offering to have a coffee with each party separately, listen to their version of developments and find out what the real concerns are – perhaps then helping them to come up with some ideas for resolving the conflict. A third party can sometimes make all the difference by offering an impartial perspective.
John conceded though that conflict can be multi-layered, making resolution doubly hard to find. Fully satisfactory reconciliation may escape us, but to bring a degree of closure to an intractable problem is better than the pain of ongoing hostility.
It was amazing to think of how much ground John covered in one lunch-hour.
Consultant to business matters