Using Mediation Skills on Teams and How to Have Productive Discussions 

All teams can benefit from learning basic mediation tools, which create a process for negotiating conflicts. But mediation can also be used for having productive discussions, and creating a safe space where team members can share their thoughts and opinions openly.

This whole month we have been discussing conflicts and teams and how to solve them. But mostly we’ve stuck to explaining the major ways of thinking about conflict on teams. We have so far mainly been doing this through the lens of the three major conceptual frameworks of conflicts: conflict resolution, conflict management and conflict transformation.  

Having these three frameworks in mind when addressing conflicts as a team is inarguably useful, since each of them determines how your team will engage with the conflict and what its goals for the post-conflict period are. 

For example, do you want your team to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible (conflict resolution)? Do you want your team to use the conflict as a means of generating productive discussions or new ideas (conflict management)? Or do you want to use this conflict to really deal with the underlying issues that this conflict has underlined, and make serious structural or cultural changes to your team (conflict transformation)? 

Clearly, having these different goals before engaging with the conflict will lead to very different results afterward. However, what many of these frameworks don’t address is the nitty gritty of actually engaging or dealing with the conflict. In other words, how do you actually solve a conflict practically?

The closest we came to talking about this was with conflict resolution. Because conflict resolution is focused on achieving a solution as quickly as possible, it has generated some generalized steps that will lead to this conclusion (unlike the other frameworks where the objective is more open-ended). But even these steps are biased towards achieving a “resolution” to come with.

So what’s a way to engage with a conflict that can easily be used no matter what your team’s goals are? That’s where mediation  comes in. Mediation is the process of handling disputes, or the means of getting to whatever goal you decide once you (and all parties involved) have acknowledged that there is a conflict.

Conflict mediation, as we shall see, has a lot of applications on teams, especially when it comes to making decisions and being able to have productive discussions. Therefore, it’s really useful for all teams to learn about the principles of mediation and how to mediate.

Main characteristics of mediation

Mediation is very serious when it comes to setting up an environment where real, honest dialogue can take place. So the following characteristics aren’t only useful in defining what mediation is and how it works, but are also inherent to the process itself. In fact, these characteristics could also be thought of as “principles”.

  • Voluntary: Mediation is ultimately a voluntary act between the parties involved in  disputes and conflicts. You can’t force someone into mediation.
  • Confidential: Everything that happens during mediation and the discussions that it produces remain confidential. This provides a firm foundation of trust and  safe space to be open and honest.
  • Nonbinding: What comes out of mediation is (unlike the process of conflict resolution) is not necessarily a treaty or signed agreement. It also shouldn’t come with any threats or punishment. Indeed, in order for mediation to work properly, the parties involved need to feel that there is no punishment waiting for them at the end, even if the mediation falls through.
  • Team-member driven: The mediation should mostly be driven by the team members involved. While there are mediators there, the main thrust of the discussion and ideas about how to resolve any disputes should come from the team members themselves. 
  • Neutral: The role of mediation is to act as a neutral process that can engage with the conflict. Oftentimes this comes in the form of an actual third-party mediator who can act as a neutral observer. But this can also be attained through creating a neutral and safe space where team members feel that they can be honest with each other without judgment.
  • Collaborative: Mediation is essentially a collaborative act, where team members come together to discuss and share openly. Viewing it as collaborative rather than “one side versus the other” also relieves a lot of the pressure that conflicts cause and lead to a more constructive (and creative) solution. 

Five stages of mediation

We now get to the meat of the mediation process, which are the different stages of mediation.

1. Deciding

The first step is to decide to actually engage with the conflict, and to use mediation. This is an important act, because as we mentioned above, mediation is voluntary. So there is no real mediation that forces participants into the process. This defeats the whole point of mediation which is to leave the door open for team members to resolve their conflicts in their own way. 

But another major aspect of this step is deciding whether mediation is right for this type of conflict, and what style of mediation to use (see below). Sometimes the time is also not right for mediation, or you may want to give it more time or try other approaches, so you and your team need to make this decision together.    

2. Preparing 

Once you have decided on going through with mediation, it’s now time to prepare for it. In mediation, preparation is important because it’s bad to walk into a discussion about a dispute (or any meeting for that matter) without having a clear ideas of:

  1. Your own thoughts and feelings about the dispute.
  2. Any facts, figures, data or research to back up your ideas or thoughts.
  3. Any ideas you have for moving past the dispute.

Furthermore, mediators also need to have time to research the dispute, get background information, and be ready to be fully present during the conversation. Giving team members prep time to formulate thoughts is always a good idea though, and will usually lead them to make more informed suggestions and less emotional reactions.

3. Presenting, Evaluating, Listening 

In this stage, the parties involved in the dispute come together with the mediator(s) to present what they have prepared. There should be adequate time allotted to all team members that wish to speak, and everyone present needs to feel that they are being heard and listened to. This is where creating a safe space is vitally important.

Moreover, while each team member is speaking, all the other team members should be listening attentively and not interjecting. This is the time to present all sides fully, without interruption, so that all sides can be heard.

4. Negotiation/Discussion

After presenting all sides, this is the stage where the team comes together to discuss ways of moving past the conflict and resolving the dispute. This is a dynamic stage though, and it will be different for each dispute and team. 

Additionally, this stage relies a lot on the environment you have set up in the previous stages. If your team has managed to create a safe environment that encourages open dialogue and respectful discussion, then this stage should build off of that, and lead to productive and creative solutions.

5. Closure

Once you feel that your team has gotten everything out on the table and that you’ve found a suitable path forward, it’s time to end the mediation process. Closing just means wrapping up everything that you’ve talked about and making sure that everything has been jotted down for later. Especially if you have come to some agreement or written resolution, make sure that it is written down and copied (again, this is a good thing to do for all brainstorming sessions and meetings, as a way to summarize and review everything that you just talked about.

Styles of mediation

Even though we said before that mediation is more of the practical process of working through conflicts rather than a way of thinking about them, there are still a number of different styles of mediation that are generally in use. These styles can change depending on your team’s goals for mediation and can be based on what conceptual framework you choose to deal with conflicts as well. 

  • Transformative: This is where the goal of mediation is to lead to some transformative change or agreement that all parties can agree to. This is usually accomplished through a very long negotiation/discussion phase, where all parties are in the same room together. This type of mediation is also much more part-driven, with the mediator there to simply move the conversation forward if it gets stuck.
  • Facilitative: This type of mediation relies heavily on the mediator to drive the whole process forward. The mediator is therefore facilitating the mediation and deciding where the discussion should hopefully lead (on behalf of the parties). Because of this, the mediator should be someone very competent and respected, and who can offer neutral and unbiased observations. This type of mediation is also often used when conflicts are aggressive or intense, and where there is a need for a steady hand to calm everyone down. 
  • Evaluative: This style of mediation, similar to facilitative, relies heavily on the mediator. In this case though, the mediator is needed to evaluate the situation and give critical feedback, as well as facilitating the process. Evaluative mediation is useful when the conflict or debate is about something qualitative or data-driven, or that involves interpreting legal codes (think business contracts or labor rights). 
  • Narrative: This is the newest type of mediation, and it focuses on the wider narrative of the conflict and how to shape it. Narrative mediation works with parties to reshape the story of their conflict. Instead of focusing on the idea of conflict and the aggression that the term contains, narrative mediation encourages team members to think about them as “differences” and to work to change the way of looking at the conflict to that of an open-ended and ultimately healing process.

How to have productive arguments on your team

Now that we’ve gone through what mediation is and what the process is like, let’s take some of the lessons of mediation and apply them to team discussions. Teams don’t always have major conflicts that require mediation. But teams do have lots of smaller disputes, usually around ideas during meetings or brainstorming sessions.  

So what are some ways that teams can use the lessons of mediation to have more productive team discussions, which in turn lead to more creative solutions?

1. Build a strong team environment 

A strong team environment is crucial for mediation to work properly, as well as for teams to have productive arguments and discussions. With a strong team environment, team members can trust each other and feel more free to communicate openly and honestly. Also, a strong team environment will lead to a sense that everyone is “on the same team” and all in this together. In other words, there will be a greater desire to work together to find better solutions.

2. Stay on topic

In mediation, mediators help participants stay focused on the topic at hand, and on the facts and details of the dispute. Likewise, during team discussions you want to make sure that your team stays focused on ideas and solutions, so as not to get derailed by smaller disputes and arguments. This will also help lead the team away from interpersonal arguments and attacks, as well.

3. GIve team members the benefit of the doubt

Another way to keep the team away from personal disputes is to extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone. Assume that all team members are committed to the team, and that they have the best interests of the team in mind. In other words, don’t take things personally. Along with this, allow people to change their minds and opinions without thinking that they are somehow being “tricky”.

This all takes a lot of trust and faith. But building this trust will ensure that your team is stronger and more resilient, and allow it to come up with more creative solutions to challenges. 

4. Be intellectually humble

Finally, with mediation participants learn to be humble, since part of mediation means accepting a greater process over which they have less control, and involves actively listening to other people’s perspectives. In discussions, this principle holds as well. Accepting that you’re not always right is part of being a team member, and can open you up to even better ideas when you learn to combine your ideas with others in a collaborative way.

One other aspect of intellectual humility is curiosity. Being curious means that you understand that you don’t know everything. But rather than making you upset or ashamed of this fact, curiosity is a positive feeling that encourages you to seek out what you don’t know so as to better yourself. When teams adopt an attitude of curiosity towards the world, there’s nothing that they can’t do, and it makes them more capable of adapting to new changes through discussion. 

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