Last week, I argued that diagnosing the “temperature” of a workplace conflict accurately was crucial to conflict resolution. With conflicts that have become too hot, where one or more of the protagonists has become physically aggressive or threatening, or is using incendiary language and seems on the point of exploding, expecting them to sit down calmly together and talk over their differences is really putting the cart before the horse. That’s the goal, not the starting point.
In cold conflicts, where passive aggression, frosty silences, avoiding and shutting down on debate predominate, there’s quite a bit of “interpersonal defrosting” to be done before productive dialogue can begin to happen.
The aim in both is to create bridges – stronger and more trusting interpersonal ties – between the protagonists. However, in a hot conflict, the contending parties need to agree to strict ground rules with the mediator before they’re brought together.
With cold conflicts, get the protagonists to form two (or more) teams and hold a debate. Be vigilant, though: as I noted last week, cold conflicts can morph from icy inertia to explosive heat very fast when the emotional repression lifts.
The mediator’s role in both hot and cold conflicts is to keep the comments focused on the problem, not the people. Personal remarks, finger-pointing and name-calling are verboten.
Try to prevent people from leaping to customary conclusions before they’ve really heard the other person out. People often think they already know what’s about to be said, cutting communication down before it’s got started and preventing any possibility of productive change. Asking what they heard X just say, or what they thought Y was about to say, can sometimes constructively interrupt entrenched assumptions.
If things start to heat up, stop the debate and agree to come back to it when things have cooled.
Model at all times what you want to see in others: politeness and consideration.