Volume 8 | Issue 6Putting it in context
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Mediation and Eating Crackers – Part II
In part one of this article, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, I suggested that, in many cases, any discussion of mediation and conflict resolution is about as interesting as eating dry crackers in short, not very interesting. In early summer, my wife and I visited a friend who was ill, and the crackers and cheese her husband served reminded me of several events my wife and I attended in the fall and winter of 2019.
I remember thinking about the different hosts’ approaches to the idea of hors d’oeuvres. For example, in two of the homes visited, the host offered a cheese ball with an array of crackers – three or four types of crackers, but only one cheese ball. At another home, the host had gone to the effort of making different toppings for each type of cracker.
At that house, the host served four or five different toppings using different crackers. This host used the hors d’oeuvres to set the stage for the main course, while in the first example, the host used the crackers and cheese as a “starter.”
What does this slightly irreverent discussion of crackers have to do with conflict resolution? The examples noted above described in very brief terms two approaches that were typically used in more normal times to make people feel comfortable in someone else’s house. The means and the methods were different, but the purpose was the same.
Between 90% and 95% of all workplace conflicts fall within the cheeseball analogy. The reality is that while there may be an appearance that multiple choices exist when all is said and done, the preferred option is selected.
As I outline below, anywhere from five to seven percent of conflicts don’t fit the above analogy, and a couple of essential reasons exist that require a different approach.
In conflict resolution, you have one purpose – to solve the conflict. This can’t be overstated. In rare instances, workplace conflicts may be of such complexity as requiring that the issues be managed rather than resolved. However, companies do not, as a rule, have ambiguities such as those that make conflict resolution in the geopolitical realm challenging to achieve.
Businesses can’t afford to leave issues unresolved, as they can damage a company in significant ways. That said, the reality is that when a workplace conflict begins to disrupt things, supervisors and managers are accustomed to responding in specific ways. The purpose of my cracker analogy was to illustrate that it is easy to take things for granted because of our long-standing familiarity with them. As a result, we tend not to look beyond the obvious. And that is often the case with conflicts.
Part one of this article introduced one of the key reasons my company exists; the hidden conflict. Yet, surprisingly, these types of disputes are visible. But, unfortunately, they are not as apparent as most conflicts people experience in the workplace, and the fact that they blend into the background makes them hard to see.
Interestingly, these types of conflicts, while hard to see, do produce warning signs. Regrettably, many companies don’t make an effort to train managers and supervisors to look for these signs of camouflaged conflict because they have different characteristics.
I recently gave a presentation to a group of mediators on this subject, and I used hurricanes as one of my examples. This presentation was to a group of mediators and others in the conflict resolution arena. I took one of my two-hour training classes and created a condensed version for that presentation, and one of the analogies that I use is hurricanes.
In Houston, past experiences taught us to pay attention to weather reports about low-pressure areas forming in the south Mid-Atlantic because we know this is where hurricanes are born. As these types of storms come closer, modern weather forecasting gives us ample warnings.
But before the advantages of Doppler radar, we had barometers that measured changes in air pressure and physical evidence such as flocks of birds flying away from the hurricane’s path. As a result, people living along the coastal regions of the U.S. learned to study environmental and physical signals of what was developing beyond the sight of land and act accordingly.
So, if these hidden conflicts provide visible warnings and can be acted on, where does one start?
It begins with the language barrier. In the American workplace, a false expectation exists that everyone understands the script, where the problem typically starts. That mistaken perception is widespread because people who speak English in America expect others to speak English as they do.
That expectation is reinforced by the fact that more than 1.8 billion people speak English, and someone in Bangor, Maine, can talk to someone in New Delhi, India.
With a little bit of effort and patience, they achieve a shared understanding of what each needs, and they can construct a mutual agreement to achieve mutual goals.
The reason that language is more of a problem than many realize is that the American workforce includes people from around the world. As a result, their understanding of English is different from that of someone born in America. Those born here and raised with the language in “its natural habitat
” have at their command an array of vernacular and colloquialisms that are second nature to them, and these words and expressions come into their conversations almost without thought. This inside advantage allows them to maneuver through the spoken language with greater ease.
People born elsewhere find themselves at a disadvantage because, while two people appear to be speaking the same English, they aren’t. That separation between those born into the language and those who were not is where many workplace conflicts develop.
One of the critical drivers of conflicts generated by language-based misunderstandings is that English is a second language for 26% of the U.S population. Consequently, it’s not their primary language. As a result, Americans and naturalized citizens bring common usage language into the workplace, which, used at the wrong time and wrong place, collides with the English foreign nationals bring to the table.
In addition, many employees bring into the workplace patterns of speech that confuse assumed meanings with original meanings, which adds to the many language errors that have become commonplace and accepted.
Once this environment is understood, the first step in unwrapping the conflict is to establish common ground. Doing so requires taking the time to define the words that are barriers to achieving that common or unified understanding of meaning and purpose.
Next month’s letter will look at the “potholes” inside the workplace that are also hidden drivers in many workplace conflicts. I wrote about this several years ago, but in light of what is going on in many companies today, I’ve concluded it is time to re-visit this topic, but with a slightly different emphasis.
The recent worker diaspora that’s driven the employee from the office and the factory back to the “cottage” did not eliminate workplace conflict. It just changed the shape and character of that type of conflict. If you want to know more, we are just a phone call away.
Food for Thought: It is easy to become agitated by other people’s actions and forget what you were trying to achieve in the first place. (Jeffry Pfeffer)
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