In the previous blog I explained how having an alternative to negotiation is empowering. Here I am going to talk about alternatives to mediation.
In the case of workplace conflict, I find that helping the parties to explore their alternatives to mediation is an effective preparation for mediation. Frequently the alternatives are not as secure or reliable as the parties assume they are.
Let’s look at a typical conflict between two individuals on the same team. One party (he) finds the other (she) “uncooperative” because she doesn’t consult and “unproductive” because he is doing most of the work on joint assignments. He talks to her, but she gets defensive and blames him for being “pushy” or “aggressive”. He has “tried everything” and none of it improves the working relationship. If I were to talk to others, he tells me, I will hear similar reports.
For him, one possible alternative to communicating with her in mediation is to seek a transfer to another position. This change may seem appealing to him at first, but here are some of the common downsides to this alternative:
- There may be someone he will find equally difficult on the new team
- His boss may view him as someone deficient in people skills
- The work of the new team may not suit him as well
This first type of alternative involves trying to replace the current situation (current team) with another (second team). In the previous blog I referred to this type of alternative as ‘another one of the same thing’. A second type of alternative is ‘another process’. Examples of another / different process include:
- Asking his manager to assist more actively
- Initiating a harassment allegation for the time she yelled at him
- Tolerating the status quo
These are possible shortcomings that correspond to the three alternative processes directly above:
- He feels that his manager favours the other party unfairly
- An harassment investigator may not produce a finding
- He is currently miserable
In individual pre-mediation sessions the potential participants and I take a walk through the landscape of possible alternatives to mediation that we think are available. I find that this exploration helps parties to face their situation more squarely and deeply. They frequently become more accountable for their role in creating the existing dynamic. And they may even consider the conflicted relationship more practically and begin to speak in a more grounded manner about provisions that would make the working relationship tolerable.
Mediators need to be able to have authentic conversations with the parties that lead to the heart of the matter. I find this to be one pathway that can lead us there.
Anyone involved in a workplace conflict can ground himself or herself through a sober look at alternatives to engagement with the other party.