Before becoming an entrepreneur I studied conflict resolution and volunteered as a mediator for small claims court and family disputes. I had no idea, at the time, that I was cultivating skills that would make me a better business leader.
In retrospect, the lessons I learned while helping people resolve property damage, resource distribution and parenting plan disputes, ultimately helped me to negotiate with investors, communicate more effectively with clients, and address potential conflicts with employees.
Here are 5 core mediation principles that have helped me resolve conflicts in business.
1. People aren’t against you, they’re just for themselves.
In one of my first mediation courses, the instructor introduced this basic concept, and it fundamentally changed the way I perceive conflict. When engaged in a conflict, emotions run high and people generally defend their best interests, which often feels like an attack and perpetuates a rigidly antagonistic line of communication.
A simple step back and consideration of the other party’s perspective reframes the entire conflict and can open up the pathway to resolution.
For example, I was once engaged in a series of frustrating negotiations with a client — we were struggling to agree on the way responsibilities should be delegated. After I took a deep breath and set my frustrations aside, I thought about the state of my client’s business, which happened to be in the midst of a big transition. That helped me to recognize that my client was seeking a sense of control because he felt a lack of control in other areas of his business. This newfound perspective allowed me to structure our agreement in terms that spoke to that need without detracting from my team’s ability to execute successfully.
2. Listen for values, not interests.
In our day-to-day conversations, we generally speak in terms of our interests: “I wish I could take some time off from my business,” or “My co-founder isn’t carrying his weight.” If we peel away a layer below those interests, however, there are always values motivating our interests. Uncovering those values is key to resolving business conflicts.
The value behind wishing for more personal time could be: “I value variety and change” or “I value relaxation and entertainment.” If you find a team member requesting time away they could really be asking for appreciation or a change in responsibilities. There might be better ways of fulfilling their needs that don’t require weeks away from the office. If it’s relaxation that they’re seeking, there might be strategies to incorporate more opportunities to relax into your company culture and avoid eventual burnout.
3. Make it safe.
A mediator’s primary objective before diving into the resolution process is to make all parties feel safe and included in the discussion. If one party feels threatened by the authority, aggression or some other advantage of the other, it’s a major barrier to authentic communication.