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March 2014

What Is Left Unsaid Is Often the Key

Disputes result from conflicts that are not dealt with correctly. By the time a mediator or facilitator is brought in to address the issue, it is the dispute on which the parties’ attention is focused. The underlying reason(s) for the dispute are the roots of a conflict that was either ignored or not properly understood. The failure to address the conflict in a timely manner allowed the issues to fester and grow into divisive, potentially destructive problems.

One of the more common reasons for a conflict to grow into a dispute is due to a misunderstanding stemming from differing values. Mediators learn very quickly that values lie at the heart of many disputes, and that they represent the rocks that lie beneath the water waiting to wreck any ship that is not steered away from danger.

Values play an important role in how people relate to each other. Individuals behave consistent with the norms and values of his or her cultural background. Two or more people attempting to act in concert will very likely interpret events and issues from potentially opposing points of view.

American companies no longer have homogeneous workforces. Given the diversity of people now working in the United States, their historical and cultural perspectives, their ethnicity, and other similar factors, it is increasingly important that individuals working in concert with each other understand and appreciate these differences.

Understanding comes through discussion. When issues arise and before they become a conflict, they need to be discussed without emotion. The starting point is for each side to explain their point of view – not defend it. When passion and emotion enter the equation, the issues can quickly become personalized, and that creates opportunities for misunderstandings and the perception by one side or the other that their point of view is not respected.

An important key to keeping a disagreement or point of contention from escalating is the company’s culture. Many companies expend time and resources to create an environment and a structure that allows employees to work through their differences. Too often these structures are not used early enough and the disagreement then spirals up into a conflict.

A dispute driven by a conflict over values can’t always be avoided, but handled correctly it can be mitigated. When this type of dispute comes up, the following guidelines should govern:

–       Identify all of the issues in clear and concise terms

–       Identify criteria for potential solutions clearly and concisely

–       Establish the decision makers early and include them in the process

One final suggestion on the matter of a values based dispute. Bringing in a third party facilitator is not a sign of failure. It is many times the preferred course of action if the parties are concerned about preserving the present and future relationships at play in the dispute.

Thought for the day:  In order to develop a complex argument it is necessary to ask what, how, and why questions. These questions will lead from observation to exploration and from there to an argument (from the Penguin Handbook). Have a question? Call 832-452-8537!

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