The Biggest Mistake You Can Make When Mediating Between Employees



I recently spotted an old post about mediation on a Facebook group for HR professionals. Someone had been asking for advice on mediating between two employees via Zoom. They were concerned as it was likely to be a tricky one so wanted some suggestions. A helpful group member had posted their thoughts. These included some great tips like meeting with the participants individually first, keeping the focus on the future and summarising what is agreed in writing.

Whilst the suggested process was a good start, for me there was one major omission. That’s not surprising as it is the part of mediation often missed by those who are lacking the necessary training and guidance, but for me it’s the biggest mistake you can make. I’ve seen it so often when people start on our training role plays. They get the participants to state the issues, encourage them to propose solutions and move them towards agreement. So what have they missed?

Feelings.

People find themselves in relationship conflicts because their conflict has gone beyond an intellectual or rational disagreement and emotions have become involved. It is no longer only about the circumstance, it is also about the other’s behaviour when dealing with the circumstance and the emotional reaction it has caused. So if the issue is going to be resolved, the mediator must ensure the feelings are addressed as well as any practical solutions.

This can be challenging. Do we really want to talk about emotions and potentially stir up the emotions we are referring to? The natural tendency is to avoid this and deal solely with the surface issue, but this risks leaving underlying concerns unresolved.

Let’s take an example. A team member is frustrated with the manager as there is a lack of clarity around their job role, plus they are getting no recognition, to the extent it feels like bullying. The manager is concerned about performance and is considering a formal performance process. A mediator could get a result by sticking with the surface issue – perhaps they decide to sit down and review the job description, agree expectations and meet at appropriate intervals to review progress. That would give them a route forward but it won’t address the team member’s feelings around lack of acknowledgement and bullying by the manager. It won’t have dealt with the manager’s feelings of frustration and annoyance that the team member is not performing and is trying to blame the manager. If you don’t address the feelings any agreement reached is at risk of unravelling and making the situation worse rather than better.

It is critical the participants express these feelings so they can each hear how the other is feeling. They can then consider ideas and solutions to help address the feelings. For instance in our scenario the participants might agree to have a specific feedback session after each completed task where clear feedback is given, with recognition if appropriate; they listen to each other and agree a way forward with a shared objective of producing good output. This ensures that the team member can receive the recognition (or an explanation if it is not warranted) and the manager can address their frustration as the team member will listen to the feedback.

In my book ‘DIY Mediation. The Conflict Resolution Toolkit for HR’, I suggest the mediator encourages the participants to think of the 3 F’s – Facts, Feelings and Future. It is all too easy to get caught up on the Facts and then jump to the Future. Don’t do it – make sure the middle F, Feelings, is properly addressed. Even if it means the meeting itself might get a bit emotional, it will be worth it to achieve a far more satisfying conversation and a robust resolution.