Mediation is quickly becoming a way to resolve disputes within the workplace and other settings. Looking at the different kinds of mediation scenarios that play out in mediation allows us to understand how helpful mediation can be. Although conflict is a fact of life, mediation helps make it a manageable and productive part of life. Mediation allows the parties to shape the outcome of the dispute and encourages them to work together to find a solution that works for all parties. It encourages collaboration from the start and seeks to help the parties identify ways to add value to the pot rather than bargain over a limited amount.
However, mediation does not always go the way that a mediator wanted or planned, even for the best and most prepared mediators. It is important to learn how to identify these issues and acknowledge some of the ways to regain control.
Through examples, this article will explore some common problems in the mediation process and identify ways that mediators can support parties. We will begin by introducing a fact pattern that will follow throughout the article. After this, we will work through several mediation scenarios that the parties in the fact pattern may face as they mediate their problem. We will also discuss how the mediator is dealing with these problems. It can be helpful to try and identify what techniques the mediator used and brainstorm ways that you would have handled the conflict situation. This will help develop your own mediation skills.
The Fact Pattern: Nancy Called a Meeting
Nancy owns an antique restoration business that she inherited from her parents after they retired. The business is very important to Nancy because it was her mother’s dream, and she has worked hard to keep the business running. As Nancy has matured in the restoration business, she has made quite a name for herself as an appraiser of antiques. This has brought further attention to the restoration business. Unfortunately, this also keeps her away from her business a lot as she travels to make special appraisals. This means that she has had to hire a manager and employees to keep the business running while she is away. She hired Mary, a restoration expert, to manage the business while she is away. She also hired Adam, Bianca, and Conrad as her team members who are training and learning the restoration process from Mary.
Each employee has been working for over two years, except for Conrad. He was hired as a new employee two months ago. During an average week, the business can complete 5-10 new projects, depending on the difficulty and scale of the project. Once Conrad is fully trained, they will be able to increase the number of projects by 2-4 projects a week. The training process is typically two to three months and includes careful restoration of corner cabinets in musty attics with Mary. Nancy pays the employees based on commission for their work and a base salary. The business takes the remaining profits. It also houses a small antique store with tag sales and properly restored projects.
About a month ago, Nancy was approached by a major network to film a series around her appraisal fame and bring elements of the restoration business and her parent’s legacy into the show. Nancy is excited about the idea and would like to pursue the contract, but she knows that it could put more pressure on her employees and make the business busier. She has been talking with Mary about how to manage the new demands, and she has decided to share the news with the employees to get their take on the situation.
Nancy called a meeting, and the conversation surrounding the show and the changes in the business does not go well, and the dispute escalates into a full-blown conflict. The main issue is whether to use the profits from the show to increase pay and commission or to hire an additional employee to cover the extra work that the show may bring to the shop. Nancy brought the group to mediation to restore their cordial relationship.
Beginning the Mediation Process
Joe opens up the mediation and introduces themselves to the parties. They highlight the ground rules for the mediation, encouraging the parties to participate with open minds and reminding them that they are in control of the outcome. Joe tells the employees, Mary, and Nancy to practice listening to what the other person is saying rather than planning what to say next. They provide a background in their mediation experience and explain how the goal is to get to the root of the conflict and create a solution that addresses all the interests and concerns at play. After finishing their introduction, they ask each party to talk through the situation as they see it.
Nancy begins and states that she would like to hire one or two more employees to help cover the extra work that she estimates the show may attract for the store. Adam interrupts her and tells her that he has talked to Bianca and that they are ready to walk away from the business. They would rather open up their own if she does not raise their pay. Joe interrupts before Adam and Bianca can lay out their plan any further and reminds them that Nancy is speaking. They validate that Adam is frustrated with Nancy’s decision, but they also ask him to wait his turn. They also encourage Adam to think about other solutions that could be brought to the table besides walking away altogether.
Joe’s actions in the scenario above likely saved the mediation from going off course early on in the day.
There are several tactics to note:
- They outline the rules at the beginning. By doing so, they implement standards for the parties to reference as they work through the mediation. More importantly, they encouraged cooperation and listening, two of the most important skills that the parties will need to practice as they work together to solve the problem.
- When Adam interrupted Nancy early on, Joe quickly intervened and reminded him of the rules they had established earlier. Specifically that they needed to practice listening and let everyone finish their thought when it was their turn to share.
- They were smart in encouraging Adam to think of other options besides threatening all or nothing with Nancy. It puts a stop to any bad faith tactics and encourages cooperation over competition.
Assessing the Conflicts and Differences, Separately
Once the parties have all shared their prospective viewpoints on the underlying issue, they move into a discussion about some possible ways to resolve the dispute. Adam and Bianca try and work together against Nancy and Mary, still threatening to leave the shop. Joe begins to notice that Nancy is slowly becoming less cooperative and withdrawing from participating.
After twenty minutes of unproductive conversation, Joe tells them all that they will be moving to individual rooms, and they will meet with them individually. They also tell the parties that they will not share anything that the parties share with them with the other parties without permission. The parties all agree and head to their rooms.
Several tactics that seem to work well include:
- Joe moves each person to a room when they notice that the large group discussion is not making any progress. This allows them to speak with each party and find out more about their interests and identify creative ways to move the parties toward a resolution.
- Separating the parties also serves to allow them to separate Adam and Bianca. It allows them to see how Bianca feels about the posturing that Adam is doing and whether she is in the same place.
- Nancy seems to be shrinking into herself, so allowing her to speak to Joe on her own also gives her the confidence to lead.
Conflict Mediation mistakes to avoid:
A few critiques here to note. Joe let the unproductive discussion go on for some time, which allowed Adam and Bianca to gang up more and allowed the employees to question authority. In some cases, especially when good faith mediation is questioned from the beginning, it may be good to split the group up more quickly.
Identifying Conflict Resolution Barries
Joe speaks with Adam first. They ask him questions and find out that Adam’s projects have been reduced because Mary has been working so hard to train Conrad. This means that the commission portion of his pay is lower than it had been. He mentioned that he could help train Conrad, which would address the issue. They ask if they can present these ideas to Mary, and Adam agrees.
Next, Joe speaks with Mary. She shares that she is wary of hiring new employees because Conrad has been difficult to train. Antique restoration requires skills and practice that are not taught in school or college. They suggest that sharing some of the training jobs with the other experienced employees could help her feel less overwhelmed and more secure. Mary likes the idea of splitting up the training, especially if they hire new employees.
Bianca tells Joe that she is worried the show will not bring in new business until it airs, which means that new employees would be splitting the work they already have. She also notes that they will likely need to work longer hours on filming days, which would not be accounted for in their current salary. They ask if she would be willing to help train any new employees that would be hired. She agrees but asks that they communicate to Nancy that she would prefer that their pay increases for filming and then they reevaluate where the money is once the show airs and the business possibly picks up.
Joe mentioned these new ideas to Nancy. Nancy tells them that they want the business to stay afloat and run the best it can because it means so much to her and her parents. She shares that she grew quiet because she was lacking confidence in her position and felt like she had failed her parents. She acknowledges that hiring employees immediately may not be a smart decision when the outcome of the show’s exposure is not known and it will not maximize profit.
She also tells them that she believes Adam and Bianca are more than capable of training Conrad, which would allow Mary to focus on her more obscure and important projects. She also acknowledges that the extra hours for filming had not been acknowledged, and she states that she will take this under consideration.
In this section, Joe is working hard to identify interests.
They keep confidentiality well. Understanding when to ask to share feelings and reminding each party that they are working together to keep the business alive. The separation allows them to identify the underlying motivations and hear new ways to solve the problem.
Resolutions that Accommodate All Parties
Joe brings the parties back to the room and encourages Nancy to share where they are at. She tells the employees that she has listened to their concerns and that she would like to propose a new plan, which involves:
- An increase in their salaries
- Gives full profits to pieces that are featured on the show
- Adam and Bianca will also be responsible for training Conrad to give Mary a break.
- Mary gets a very special job of directing the sales department.
- New assistants will be hired one month before the premiere of the show.
- A project from the past that is sold in the shop will also give the employees commission.
These changes appease the group. Joe offers to draw up a settlement agreement that includes a provision that they will come and review the plan with the group two months before the premiere of Nancy’s series to make sure that they are heading in the right direction. The parties all sign the resolution, and it gives them a new perspective on the future of the business.
In this scenario, Joe encourages the parties to control their outcome.
They offer to get the agreement and plan in writing, which will provide a guide moving forward. They also understand that circumstances may change, and they address this by checking that the plan is still working and keeping the parties happy.
Check out these other conflict resolution scenarios and case studies.