Successful Supervisor 66 The Mediator Role

February 24, 2018

Every supervisor is called upon to play the role of mediator between two parties who are having agreement problems. The severity of the problem will vary based on the specific circumstances and the people involved.

If we think about the extremes, a mild situation might be helping resolve an argument about a machine cleaning process between individuals working on a team, while a severe situation may involve physical threats where one or both of the parties may be in real danger or are facing termination.

For inexperienced supervisors, it is always best to err on the side of caution and have additional resources ready to assist if needed. It may not be appropriate to have a security person in the room with the people who are arguing, but it might be wise to have one in an adjacent room on call in the event of escalating rancor.

In the interest of transparency, I am not a professional mediator, so my homespun advice below may be in some ways only a primer leading you to more study on the topic. I have been in many situations where I was the mediator, and I still have all my fingers and toes. What I will share below are some ideas on how to expand the conventional approach to one that can have a more permanent impact on the entire organization.

Typical Approach to Mediation

The process of mediation almost always involves getting the two parties together for a discussion, or a series of discussions, with an objective. The primary objective is to restore order and come up with a fair settlement.

The methodology is to get both parties to talk, make sure both parties are heard, look for areas of agreement, agree to disagree on some things if necessary, look for win-win solutions, seek cooperation, and document actions.

The overarching role of the mediator is to maintain safety for all parties as the discussion continues and guide the dialog toward a resolution. The typical discussions have several parts that may be handled in different order depending on the nature of the disagreement.

In general, it is best to start with establishing a safe environment where each party can hear the other. Next comes a fact finding approach where the perceived facts are given. Third is a search for potential resolutions, and finally there is an action phase where the parties agree on some steps to resolve the conflict.

What the Parts Look Like in More Detail

1. Create a set of ground rules that both parties can accept

The idea here is to review how the discussion will proceed and how to maintain order so both parties can make their points in safety. If the parties are especially hostile, it helps to have a brief list of rules for the specific situation. For example, some points might include:

• Talk only when it is your turn
• Be respectful in the language you use – no profanity
• Listen carefully when the other person is speaking
• No electronic devices should be used
• No weapons are allowed in the room
• Respect the role of the mediator

2. Establish what happened in the opinion of both parties

Often the problem is that the parties do not have the same understanding of exactly what happened, and this clarification phase obviates the need for further work. Once both parties can agree on what happened and the confusion is over, often they can shake hands and the incident is over. If they agree on what happened but are still at odds over the fairness or equity, then further analysis is needed.

3. If possible, try to identify areas of agreement

It is chancy to begin with who is right and who is wrong, because it presupposes there is a right and wrong way to articulate what people are thinking. Both individuals will have a deep feeling that their way is the correct interpretation. That is why the better approach is to look for areas where the parties already agree. Perhaps they can agree on a major objective for the group but are at odds over how to achieve that.

4. Look for peace in the valley

Of course, an objective is to end hostilities, but that is not the only consideration. A key area to pursue is how to modify conditions so the problem is not only solved but the culture has changed so it will not come back in a different form. A short term peace is good, but the objective should be long term accord.

Explore options with the individuals by asking open ended questions like, “What would have to happen for the situation to be acceptable to you?” Always seek to find win-win solutions so that both parties are satisfied. Often a solution that satisfies one party will be totally unacceptable to the other party. In this case, keep looking for other options that can be acceptable to both parties.

5. Try to reach a fair settlement

Crafting a “fair” settlement is high on the agenda, but this can be myopic. The focus should shift from what will suffice to calm things down now to how the environment can be modified to attack the root cause of the acrimony.

For example, if two administrative people are at odds over the formatting of a critical report, you may be able to get them to agree on one common format. Unfortunately, if the root cause is that their managers have differing views on what they want the reports to emphasize, then the agreed-upon solution will be short lived.

6. Maintain your authority

You go into the discussion as the authority figure, and it is important not to lose that position. That requires being as objective and neutral as possible, which in some cases is difficult to do.

These are some of the typical steps to achieve a resolution of a specific problem between two people, but the real mediation requires more than just getting the two people to get along. You need to extend the thinking beyond the two individuals so that you consider the culture these individuals are working in to accomplish a lasting solution.

Extend the Focus

The approaches above are not total long term solutions. If you can factor the things below into the conversation, your thinking process, and your leadership, you will emerge with more robust and lasting solutions.

1. Train people how to resolve future conflicts

Part of the human condition is that we all see things from our own perspective. It is natural that there will be differences of opinion from time to time. You want to focus your coaching remarks on processes that will allow people to get along even though they do not always agree. The key skill is for people to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

2. Creating a preventive rather than reactive culture

Often the entire culture can become supportive of ways to get along amid the turmoil of daily stresses. The idea is to stress that the entire team shares a common goal at a higher level. We all want the group to be successful, and we know that fighting always detracts from performance.

Teambuilding exercises are very helpful for teaching groups to work better together with less acrimony. Building a culture of higher trust will obviate the future need for a mediator to sort out the issues.

3. Engaging the entire community

Working with the whole team to create a set of mutual values and agreed upon behaviors can go a long way to preventing the flare ups between two edgy people.

When operating in the role of a mediator, it is often tempting to focus on resolving the issues at hand, but that process does not prevent recurrence. Take a longer view and work on your entire culture and you will find less need to play the mediator role in the future.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Hold Up a Quarter

April 23, 2011

This article is about perspective. No two people will see a phenomenon the same way. As our fingerprints are all unique, so is our perception of what is going on around us. A simple way to demonstrate this is for me to hold a quarter out in front of me while I am facing you. I will describe a round metal object with an embossed head on it with the word “Liberty” around the circumference. You will describe a round metal object with an embossed picture of an eagle sitting on a branch or some state-specific rendering. We are both describing the exact same object, yet we see it differently.

The same phenomenon happens when two people see any kind of situation at work or at home. They see the same thing, but it has a different appearance depending on their personal vantage point. This means they will draw different conclusions about what just happened and the significance of it. Taking the next step requires each individual to react to the stimulus in an appropriate way. Each person is free to react however he or she feels is appropriate for the situation. Even if both people perceived exactly the same thing, what would seem appropriate to one person might be the wrong thing to do for the other. All this discrepancy leads to squabbles about actions taken.

For example, let’s suppose a manager is discussing an employee with a severe attendance problem with her supervisor. The manager and supervisor may have different opinions about the problem itself. Perhaps the supervisor knows the lady has a child who has special needs, and this calls for more trips to the child’s doctor than would be normal. The supervisor wants to be lenient based on this knowledge. From the manager’s perception, this employee needs to be treated with the same set of rules as everyone else or it will be hard to maintain discipline. The manager sees an untenable situation that needs progressive counseling, while the supervisor sees the need for flexibility.

Differences of opinion about what is happening and what should be done in response to it create a great deal of conflict in any work place. Since what I see is obvious to me and the resulting call for action is a logical consequence of that perception, I will be pretty sure my way is right. The trouble is that another person will be just as sure his perception and remedy are right. If I know that I am right, and you see things differently, then by definition, you must be wrong. In most instances my reaction to this dichotomy is to try to educate you on why your perception is incorrect. You, of course, will try to get me to realize the error of my thinking. We are off to the races in conflict.

This genesis of conflict is going on in small and large ways within each and every day. Is it any wonder there is so much acrimony in the workplace and at home? This problem is ubiquitous. What are some antidotes so we can reduce the conflicts between people?

Seek to understand assumptions – In coming up with different perceptions of what has just occurred, the root cause is often based on differing assumptions. I might assume the bulb is burned out while you may be convinced the wall switch is off. A third person may think we are experiencing a power failure. We all observe a dark room, but we ascribe the cause to different assumptions. Each of us will come up with a course of action different from the others based on our assumptions.

Try reversing the roles – If you and I are at loggerheads over an issue, it is often helpful to call a temporary truce and ask you to verbalize my argument while I attempt to articulate yours. This process can create a kind of empathy that is helpful at seeing the other perspective or it can uncover flaws in the logic of either party. This method can backfire, though. I was once in disagreement with an individual and suggested a reverse role play. He said, “Fine, you start by stating my position.” I did my best to lay out his thesis. He looked at me and said, “You know, Bob, you’re right.”

Use Reflective Listening – Often perceptual arguments involve two people talking at each other, but neither party doing much effective listening. Reason: when each party is pretending to listen, he or she is actually spending nearly all mental energy preparing to speak. Reflective listening forces each individual to pay full attention to what the other person is actually saying. Once reflective listening is employed, it is not uncommon to have two people who were feuding suddenly realize they have been in violent agreement. They were expressing their opinions in words that sounded opposed but were really congruent.

Watch the language – Rather than say, “You are clueless, can’t you see that he has no intention of picking up the mess,” try, “I am seeing his actions somewhat differently than you do. Can you tell me why you’re assuming he will not pick up the mess?” Asking questions rather than making statements is a technique that can reduce the inflammation in perceptual disagreements. Aggression can make it difficult for a person to hear, let alone understand. As David Halberstam wrote, “…excessive amounts of testosterone leads to a loss of hearing.”

Agree to Disagree – Acrimony can easily be thwarted by simply agreeing to disagree. After arguing about an issue for a while, either party can say something like, “This issue is not worth arguing over, I am not going to convince you, and you are not going to convince me. Let’s not get hung up on it. Just because we see this issue differently is no reason we cannot respect each other and work well together.”

Do not blow things out of proportion – Much of the acrimony in personal disagreements can be avoided if people remember the petty squabbles from day to day mean very little in the long run. If an issue that seems worth fighting over today will be totally forgotten in a week, it is a good idea to relax and just let the other person win rather than duke it out for several days. Pick battles worth fighting and ignore the insignificant give and take issues.

Get a good mediator – Often a third person can step in and clarify the different opinions and help people sort out their differences quickly. Reason: The participants get emotionally involved in the fight and lose objectivity. A cool head that is respected by both parties can make some reasonable suggestions that at least soften the struggle.

Give in – Just letting the other person win is often a great strategy. Some people find this hard to do for reasons of pride or ego. Who cares who is right or wrong? In fact, in most arguments both people are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. The true winner of an argument is usually the one who quits the fight first.

Humans have a remarkable ability to drive each other crazy. This tendency is amplified by close proximity. It is the reason why you can appreciate and love members of your family until they come to visit for a week. At a distance, it is easy to manage disagreements most of the time, but when people are underfoot every day, the little things tend to become so irritating, the conflict begins to snowball.

I am reminded of the TV show “Everybody Loves Raymond,” where the characters do nothing but fight through the whole show. I rarely watch that sitcom because I find it exhausting. As one person adroitly observed, “I don’t watch TV to get an ear full of fighting, pettiness, cruelty, lack of respect, and sarcasm. I can get all that at home.” Since we all see things through a slightly different lens, and we process assumptions about what is happening through our parochial brain, we are going to have conflict. Expect it and take some of the evasive steps above to keep the volume down on interpersonal differences. Life is too short to be habitually annoyed by fellow workers or family members.