August 7, 2008

In the Eye of the Storm

Mediator Bootcamp: Part 2

Hello and welcome to another edition of Wires Crossed!

Last time I introduced five types of conflict — relationship conflicts, data conflicts, values conflicts, interest conflicts, and structural (power) conflicts — and showed you how to recognize them.

The Mediator Boot Camp now continues with some techniques* for resolving these conflicts. We begin with relationship conflicts, data conflicts, and interest conflicts. The next edition of Wires Crossed will conclude the series with advice on resolving values and structural conflicts.

First, a word on conflict resolution — what it is and what it isn’t.

Conflict Resolution, Negotiation & Reconciliation

The goal of conflict resolution is not to persuade the other person or to win an argument. That’s the art of negotiation. Negotiation requires a very different skill set. If you’re looking for tips on negotiation, this article won’t help at all.

Nor is conflict resolution a process of reconciliation. In other words, the goal isn’t to “make up” or “make nice”, though that is occasionally a by-product of conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution — the subject of this article — is about eliminating (or at least managing) the source of a conflict. If you like to think graphically, imagine two pieces of thread or rope. Conflict resolution is a process of disentanglement.

DIY Mediation

DIY Mediation

Of course, it’s more difficult to play both mediator and disputant in the same dispute (that is, intervene in your own conflict). That’s why people often turn to professional mediators. But as a graduate of the Mediator Boot Camp, you’ll see that a little DIY mediation is well within your grasp.


You’ll recall that relationship conflicts are usually caused by miscommunication, strong emotions, preconceived opinions (stereotyping), or repetitive negative behavior. If Jill says, “There’s something about Mary that bugs me!” or “She’s just so arrogant and opinionated!” that’s a relationship conflict.

Here are a couple of techniques that will help:

1. Take responsibility for your mistakes, promote expression of emotions, and validate feelings.

Example: You’re the office manager, and you didn’t respond to Tom’s email in which he offered to organize a fundraiser for the homeless. Now he’s avoiding you and, you hear through the grapevine, talking negatively about you with coworkers. You step into Tom’s office. Let’s listen in to your conversation:

You: I totally forgot to respond to that fundraiser suggestion, Tom. I’m sorry about that. I guess you’ve been pretty mad at me?

Tom: Well, I did rather assume you didn’t like my idea, and it never feels good to be ignored.

You: Yeah, I can see why you felt that way. The fundraiser is a good idea, but I’ll have to run it by corporate. There may be liability issues. Even if it’s a no-go, I appreciate the idea.

Tom: No problem. And thanks for getting back to me.

Nice work! In the space of about 30 seconds, you dowsed the flames of a relationship conflict that might have quickly turned into a three-alarm fire.

2. Define the problem, then divert negative energy from attacking each other to attacking that problem.

Example: Things aren’t going well between you and your roommate. It started when she borrowed your SUV (without your permission) to haul building supplies from Home Depot. Then she scratched a mirror while unloading the vehicle. After a few minutes of unproductive yelling at one another, you try a different approach:

You: “Look, this doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling this conversation is only making things worse. Let’s refocus. How can we get my car fixed and avoid in the future what you call a ‘misunderstanding’ over your using my car?”

I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts this conversation is about to take a turn for the better.


Data conflicts are caused by a lack of information (e.g. not knowing the market value of a small business), misinformation (e.g. belief in a false rumor about a job applicant), or different ways of looking at the same information (e.g. whether crime statistics indicate a safer or more dangerous neighborhood).

Mediators help parties resolve data conflicts by providing a path out of the conflict — a means of disentanglement. We do this by focusing on what is important to the parties, helping them develop criteria to assess data, and facilitating use of third-party experts where appropriate.

Example: Joe and Melinda are getting divorced. Joe is going to move back East, and Melinda has decided to buy out Joe’s interest in the family home. Now all they need to do is agree on a purchase price…

Joe: The house is worth at least $880,000. I’ve looked at similar homes on

Melinda: You’re just looking at asking prices. My friend, whose husband is a real-estate broker, said it’s worth a lot less than that.

Joe: Houses are selling at or above the ask price. If anything, my estimate is probably too low.

Here are the types of questions I’d now be asking to help Joe and Melinda resolve this data conflict.

  • “I’m wondering how much money is at stake here. Maybe we should consider your mortgage balance and then think in terms of the equity you have in the home.” [Focusing the parties on what’s important]

  • “Noting that Melinda doesn’t feel your method of valuation is very reliable, Joe, can either of you think of any alternative methods that might be acceptable to both of you?” [Brainstorming and developing criteria to assess data]

  • “Do you both think the money at stake here warrants the expense (say, $400) of an independent appraisal? If so, how might you select one mutually acceptable appraiser? Or would you rather each get your own appraisal and then split the difference?” [Using third-party experts to break deadlocks]


Interest conflicts are typically about resources — for example, five cities in competition to host the Olympics, or two children who want to see different movies. Although at first glance these conflicts can seem intractable, they are often the easiest to resolve.

Example: Adam and Zak are 9-year old twins. They can’t agree on whether to see Batman or the new Pixar movie for their birthday outing. Zak especially feels that Adam always gets what he wants.

Enter Mom and Dad, who are maestros at conflict resolution:

Dad wants to encourage the boys to work out this conflict themselves. The first thing he does is announce that unless they agree, there’ll be no birthday outing.

Tactic 1: Shift the focus from positions to interests.

Ten minutes later, and the boys are still arguing. Dad’s first attempt to break the impasse didn’t work on this occasion. Mom suggests a tie breaker instead: They’ll look in the newspaper and see which movie gets a better review.

Tactic 2: Look for objective standards.

Neither Adam nor Zak are jazzed about that approach. And besides, as it happens, both movies get four-star reviews. Hmm? How about abandoning the movie theatre idea altogether and go go-karting instead. Then, when the movies come out on DVD, they can rent them from Netflix.

Tactic 3: Search for ways to expand resources and/or develop integrative solutions that address both parties’ needs.

It starts to rain, and Mom thinks go-karting will be too dangerous on a wet track. Dad asks the boys if one wants to choose a new color for painting their bedroom rather than pick which movie. (This works well because Zak is really happy to see either movie, whereas Adam desperately wants to see Batman.)

Tactic 4: Look for a compromise or trade-off.

When all else fails, a compromise or trade-off will usually resolve an interest conflict. But don’t look for these too soon because you might miss out on a better (win-win) resolution.

By Paul R. Merlyn, Principal Mediator

* Adapted from Christopher W. Moore. The Mediation Process.

Jossey-Bass. 2003. © Christopher W. Moore


1 comment:

Stephanie West Allen said...

Hello, Paul. I read about your entry into the ADR blogosphere on Nancy Hudgin's blog and wanted to drop by and say "Welcome!" This corner of the Internet is a great place to have a conversation with other conflict professionals. I am betting you will enjoy moving into the neighborhood.