Most companies view conflict as a fire: a negative force they must put out, avoid, or control. By its very nature, this approach is reactive and outward focused. It provides little opportunity for growth. Primarily driven by fear, such an avoidance of conflict contributes to a prevailing culture of distrust and aggression in the workplace.
A more conscious paradigm is to view conflict as a fire alarm. It alerts and reflects what is happening within your organization, and it creates an opportunity for fire prevention by encouraging growth, understanding, connection, and dialogue. These three strategies provide a way to tune inward in times of conflict on an interpersonal, organizational, and individual level. Together, they can foster a culture of reflection and connection — creating more productive, committed, inspired, and creative company communities.
Mediation is a confidential, voluntary process through which a trained neutral individual creates space for two or more parties in a conflict to have an authentic, expansive conversation. The point of mediation is understanding, not resolution or settlement. In other words, parties walk away from a successful mediation with a better understanding of what is important to them and/or to their conflict partners.
Mediation provides a way for members of your organization to deal with conflict through a direct, face-to-face interaction. This discourages gossip, passive aggression, and unwarranted assumptions, while enabling individuals to listen to each other and to consider differing points of view. The impact of mediation goes beyond the interaction between conflicting parties. When utilized as a conflict resolution tool within an organization, it empowers people to become creative problem-solvers who take responsibility for their interactions. Using mediation regularly thus promotes a culture of understanding, collaboration, creativity, and personal growth.
2. Restorative dialogue
Whereas mediation focuses on conflict among individuals, restorative dialogue addresses systemic issues that impact a large portion of your team — or even the entire company. The purpose of restorative dialogue is to restore (or foster) a sense of balance, fairness, openness, and trust. Restorative dialogue consists of the following three parts:
- Information gathering: Identify the appropriate stakeholders who must participate in the conversation, and determine their key positions, interests, values, feelings, needs, and suggestions. From this information, it is important to deduce broad areas of concern and agreement and outline the ideas for moving forward.
- The circle process: The circle process is a ceremony dedicated to openly discussing the concern while stakeholders sit in a circle and speak one at a time. The ceremonial aspect of the circle process creates the experience of a safe, sacred, and open space. When skillfully facilitated, the circle process encourages deep understanding, compassion, and connection among the participants.
- Follow-up: This is a vital component of restorative dialogue. Follow-up includes a summary of concerns, areas of agreement, and next steps raised during the circle process. It also sets down concrete actions and establishes clear consequences if there is no appropriate follow through.
Organizations that adopt restorative dialogue as part of their stakeholder engagement program can count on having a strong sense of community where individuals feel free to bring their concerns and are empowered to address them in a collaborative, open, and constructive ways.
3. Tuning-in practice
Tuning-in practice is a way to introduce mindfulness to the workplace by setting time aside on a regular basis for individuals to be quiet and tune in. While simple, inexpensive, and easy to implement, tuning-in practice can radically transform employee interactions — enabling people to be more engaged with each other, less reactive, and more focused. While there are numerous mindfulness practices and techniques, the one I utilize in corporate settings is called connected breathing:
- To practice the connected breathing technique, first notice your breath. Focus on colder air entering the nostrils as you inhale and warmer air leaving the nostrils as you exhale.
- After a few moments, consciously make your breathing deeper — engaging the chest, the stomach, and the pelvic floor as you breathe.
- As you begin to breathe more deeply, let the breath move in one smooth, continuous motion with no pauses or breaks.
- Finally, introduce a simple four-word mantra: “I am here now.” Each of the words corresponds to the movement of your breath. Inhale, “I.” Exhale, “am.” Inhale, “here.” Exhale, “now.”
A regular tuning-in practice such as the connected breathing technique also relaxes the nervous system — enabling people to listen, empathize, and reflect. Just five minutes of this practice helps people relax, gain clarity, and improve their communications both inside and outside of conflict.
By accepting the invitation to go inward and treating conflict as the fire alarm rather than the fire, organizations can adopt a more meaningful and focused approach to conflict. Instead of reacting to conflict with aggression, avoidance, or fear, the above strategies can empower conscious organizations to respond to conflict with clarity, openness, and compassion. Responding to conflict in such a way creates an organizational culture of growth, connection, and dialogue. With a culture like this, there are fewer fires to put out.