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Volume 8 | Issue 5

Putting it in context

A message from CDC Integrated Services, LLC

Eating Crackers and Mediation

Eating crackers isn’t all that interesting. By themselves, cracker consumption is a dry and disappointing experience, so people add any number of things on top of the cracker to make eating it a more enjoyable experience. The thing about crackers and toppings is that they serve as an introduction to the main event. People expect something else to follow.

What makes the experience pleasant is that it makes up part of a meal shared with others. When that happens, people remember the experience, and the cracker becomes part of the background.

Writing about mediation is a lot like eating dry crackers. Unless you are a mediator or someone who works in the conflict resolution arena, most articles on the subject are of passing interest; unless, like crackers, we add something. Sometimes it is the injection of a provocative question that explores both the idea of mediation and the challenges it represents. Or, it can be tangential issues that come into play in ways that bring about greater interest or understanding.

Over the years, I’ve used various cracker toppings to draw the attention of the very busy leaders and executives who read my letters. I am always respectful of your time and theirs, and I want to make what I write relevant to your day-to-day experience.

So here is the dry cracker part. Mediation is a consequence of not getting it right the first time.  Several years ago, I wrote that certain types of conflict occur in most work environments that catch people by surprise. 

What do I mean by this? Before the Corona Virus invaded the U.S. and shut everything down, frequent conflicts would occur in just about every company. These workplace conflicts were a fact of life. 

What was also true was that the majority of these conflicts resolved themselves organically more than 90% of the time right there at the source. The parties fixed the issues disrupting the process; sometimes smoothly, sometimes not, and maintained the group’s cohesion and dynamic. 

Yet, something on the order of five to seven percent of conflicts on average did not get resolved. So what is different about this small percentage of disputes that separates them from those that seem to resolve themselves more easily? One key difference is that not every conflict is readily visible, and those that aren’t visible represent a different type of disputes.

A common characteristic is that this type of conflict tends to percolate over time just below the surface. This small group of disputes represent interpersonal fractures that can’t be repaired easily, and as a consequence, get pushed below the surface. 

Thus, periodically these conflicts create heat and temporary discord, but the underlying cause remain unresolved.  Eventually, an eruption occurs. In many cases, these dramatic eruptions bring disarray and disruption that impact the production and delivery of a service or product. 

When this happens, group cohesion quickly breaks down; people take sides, finger-pointing, and other behaviors drive members of the group further apart. Unfortunately, what is often missed about these types of conflict is that the inevitable eruption comes with warning signs that executives and managers don’t see. They aren’t trained to see these symptoms, nor are they prepared to provide the necessary responses.  

These types of conflicts can linger for a long time, sometimes several years. Eventually, they do grow more unstable. Then, a catalyst is injected often by happen-stance that changes the dynamic and de-stabilizes the status quo, and the character of that sub-surface conflict begins to change.

I occasionally use the hurricane as an analogy in my talks with clients and my speeches on this subject. Hurricanes provide ample warning that is not immediately obvious, and people living along the U.S. Gulf coast learned to see what isn’t immediately obvious. Like hurricanes, these types of conflicts also provide warning signs that people miss. 

The difference is that multiple disasters taught us what we needed to know and what to look for as individuals.  It is a sad sort of irony that repeated conflicts that arrive without apparent warning do not create the same learning opportunities. 

About this point in many articles, the writer will offer between three and five suggested techniques to aid in resolving workplace conflicts. They might offer something along the lines of: 

  • Types of strategies to use, or
  • Techniques to diagnose the conflict

 

Unfortunately, many who write about conflict resolution techniques often miss that many of them require practice, and jumping immediately into the fire is rarely the best learning technique. Unfortunately, the reality is that in most work environments, no one gives a lot of thought to tools/methods available to solve these conflicts, or the effort needed to use them properly. 

 

Many managers and supervisors default to methods they’ve learned as they matured into adults – avoidance and confrontation, never fully realizing that these form part of the three broad categories on which conflict resolution strategies are designed and executed. 

 

The categories of avoidance, diffusion, and confrontation are essential to many strategies used to resolve workplace conflict. Yet, few leaders, managers, and supervisors understand the relationship among these elements and how properly integrating these classifications is critical to resolving conflict successfully.

 

Corporate and organizational cultures are saturated with words like “win,” “lose,” “beats,” and any number of words that describe gaining an advantage over the other party.

 

By the time a casual reader gets to the end of the article, the cracker I alluded to earlier is dry as dust, and adding olives or cheese isn’t going to disguise that fact. So, to avoid falling into this trap, I will hide the cracker in part II of this article and focus on the toppings.

 

In the next part of this subject, I will delve deeper into the idea of warning signs and why some are obvious and other harder to see, and we will take a look at hurricanes and potholes, and other exciting things.

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jerry@cdci-mediation.com