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Conflict resolution: Let employees find the solutions

Don’t let disputes escalate to the point they require formal mediation, advised Steven P. Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, at the 2012 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference here.

He and Ashley Virtue, the center’s director of external relations, taught a two-day workshop on “The Exchange,” an informal four-stage method that line managers and HR professionals can use to help employees find their own solutions to workplace conflict.

Unlike formal mediation -- in which parties seek resolution through an impartial mediator -- the Exchange requires three-way interaction between two employees and a line manager or HR professional with a vested interest in maintaining company standards and policies -- not an impartial position, said Dinkin. He and other center mediators developed the method and teach it to clients including government agencies, universities, health facilities and corporations.

Stage 1: The manager meets with each party privately to gather information. What issues are disputed? What is each employee’s perspective?

Stage 2: The manager prepares a written agenda for a joint meeting. First, list the disputes. Are work styles, communication or interruptions on the table? Second, what is the emotional impact on employees? Consider respect, frustration or emotional blocks. Third, identify a neutral question you can pose to break the ice at the joint meeting.

Ask each to give their perspectives. For example, ask them what personal goals brought them to the organization in the first place. The manager might want to review the agenda with an HR professional before proceeding, and keep confidentiality in mind, Dinkin suggested.

Stage 3: Conduct the joint meeting. Go through the agenda. Frame issues in a neutral way.

“You want to get both employees to understand the other employee’s perspective. They may not have talked to each other for a long time -- they’ve made some assumptions. This is the time to start to overcome those assumptions,” Dinkin said. “Try to get employees to talk to each other so they can understand the impact of the conflict on the other,” he advised.

After each employee speaks, the manager asks the other employee to repeat what he or she has heard that person say. Then, as manager, “This is your time to say that these are the expectations I have going forward. This dispute is having an impact on our customers,” he advised. “This is a three-way conversation.”

Listen respectfully and use follow-up questions to pull out information, Dinkin instructed.

Some conflict becomes personal: “That+s when people start to avoid each other.” So the manager should open doors for future conversations. Employees must learn to communicate with each other, he said.

And employees take ownership of solutions. “Then, if you come back three months later, that solution is going to stick,” he explained.

Stage 4: Facilitate problem solving. “It doesn’t have to be a compromise -- both sides can walk away feeling like they’ve succeeded,” he said. Create an action plan. Features of “SMART” plans: They are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed.

At the end of the joint meeting, discuss what information will be disclosed to others. Finally, the manager should periodically check with employees and see whether agreements are being followed, he said.

Last year, Dinkin’s colleagues held an Exchange to resolve who should answer the phone when the receptionist was not available. Nine months later, the employees involved expressed heart-felt thanks to the manager who intervened.

Underlying the negotiations: Respect for the issue, respect for the people and a respect for the process, he said. “When people are involved in the process—they have a stake in the outcome.”

Nancy M. Davis is editor of HR Magazine.

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