Keep Changing The Subject! A Mediation Ploy

It happens more and more often. One mediation participant makes a comment that seems outrageous. Then as another person tries to respond, inform, or correct what was just said, the person making the original statement changes the subject and makes another grand and unrelated declaration.

Overwhelming a mediation discussion with an onslaught of disconnected, inflammatory, or off-the-subject remarks might be a conscious attempt to derail, disparage, and wear down others. More often, however, this type of approach is not planned. Instead it is the result of a history of personal grievances and unresolved complaints.

Regardless of why this distracting behavior happens, it is the mediator's responsibility to keep the focus of the discussion on the issue, or issues. It is clearly in the participants' best interests to discourage rapid fire, seemingly endless pivots that distract and disallow a resolution of the problem at hand.

A critical part of preparing for mediation is to generally define the problem to be addressed prior to the meeting. Next, as the meeting actually begins, the first goal of the agenda is to come to a general agreement on the issue. A well written problem statement is a high value reference when clarified at the outset.

A participant who creates constant drama, who dismisses the facts, or who belittles others' concerns should be allowed to do some venting and commenting. This can be cathartic in its own way and a mediator should not be overly directive. But a difficult personality must not dominate the mediation. Clearly, a constantly changing issue is unhealthy for problem solving.

How early do you slow down or stop distracting behavior? There is no single answer to that question that I know of -- other than to be aware that a successful mediation will be far more difficult to achieve if the mediator falls entirely silent.

I witness attempts to derail issues every day in public settings. As a result, I am keenly aware of the expectation of mediation participants that this ploy be stopped. Are these types of wandering outbursts more frequent today than in the recent past? I believe they are.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 400,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.

Mine Extra Gold From Mediation

"When does mediation have the lowest impact?"

When mediators and participants don't do more than the minimum expected.

I am not singling out any one profession. This isn't about gigging overwhelmed HR directors, willful attorneys, determined mediators, or hard bargaining union leaders. This is about encouraging workplace mediation participants to look past the issue of the day -- and to put to use all of the results of their hard work. Not just some. This is about the multiple, long-term, workable ideas that remain from your brainstorming discussions after the issue at hand is resolved.

During mediation, once the problem is defined, and the parties have discussed their common interests in addressing the concern, a very valuable conversation begins -- the brainstorming of options. Those practical ideas eventually get narrowed down to the most mutually acceptable agreements. But that flip chart on the wall with the other ideas, and those personal notes in your laptop, contain pure gold for potential employee relations improvements.

Here is the challenge, though. How do you take those well-meaning ideas, shape them into practical changes, and perhaps pre-empt future problems?

Well, first, don't just store your notes. Don't discard these ideas because they weren't the most practical considerations of the day. And for goodness sake, don't throw them away. Use them.

But how and when? Right?

The best way to mine this gold is to schedule time at the end of mediation to do a review. Place this review on the mediation agenda beforehand, not as an after-thought. Allocate 15 minutes or so for this wrap up.

One of the group dynamics that works in your favor when you do a review is that you already might have decision making authority in the room. Also, you have the advantages of creativity and cooperation. After all, you have just hammered out a solution to a difficult complaint. Use that energy to pose this question -- can any of these other ideas be pursued to alleviate tensions, stop repetitive problems, begin process improvements, or prevent future communications mishaps?

Many manufacturers have found great ways to make use of residual material. A top chef knows how to use all of the kitchen's food extras for other recipes. Consider the same approach as you wrap up your mediation.

Assure mediation is high value. Work those other good ideas. Place one last quarter hour of time on your agenda and achieve more from mediation than is expected of you.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 400,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.

Mediation -- About Rude Behavior

"We want to be sure you won't allow bad behavior during mediation. We have been in that type of meeting before. We were told it would be healthy. It was not healthy. It was demeaning." No problem. I agree. And because I agree I am about to get into trouble with some of our readers. Perhaps. No, not perhaps. Very likely. But that's okay.

Allowing participants a full range of untethered comments and unrestrained conduct during workplace mediations is not conducive to problem solving. At least in my experience it isn't.

Rules of conduct should be established early. And I suggest that a review of expectations for behavior take place before mediation begins.

One of the best approaches I have found for shaping conduct is to hold discussions between the mediator and each of the participants separately. This doesn't take long, even when there are several individuals involved. And adding in a quick reminder of the rules during mediation introductions is wise.

(A 60 Second Update from Mediation Resolves on conduct can be found here.)

Concensus can be reached on allowable behavior when the mediator takes the lead. To do otherwise, or to dismiss the idea of civility, and proceed in an atmosphere of 'everything goes because everything heals' is a disservice to the individuals, the process, and the hopes of constructive outcomes.

What I haven't figured out is whether this approach of expecting courtesy is a minority opinion -- or is it the mainstream view? I fear rude behavior is pop culture today, perhaps even a societal shift.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 400,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.

Mediating Work Processes

Resolving employee issues, complaints, or grievances represents the mainstream (and historic) request for workplace mediation. Increasingly, mediation is being used to resolve other types of internal disagreements, debates, or stalled out discussions. These gaps in workplace cohesion can cause delays, bad feelings, and sidetrack cost reduction opportunities.

Unfortunately, mediation is still reactive in most cases -- scheduled only when problems have surfaced and festered for a period of time. Happily, though, mediation as a preventative step is now being considered more widely by organizations of all sizes.

Addressing flawed policies, edgy human relations environments, or poor internal work processes before (employee or consumer) complaints surface is, of course, wise. And the idea of continuous improvement is not new. However, bringing in neutral problem solving talent to address divergent thinking is. And mediators are quickly becoming the resource.

The historic employee complaint mediation often leads to valuable insights by the mediator on what causes a particular disagreement. Many workplace mediators share their observations afterwards with the appropriate individuals, intending to encourage and recommend systemic improvements. This is a great full-service approach, of course, and one that I fully endorse.

Is expanding the application of workplace mediation just consultant work by another name? No, I don't think it is. Mediators are not selling a pre-constructed product. Mediators do not gain from the installation of one system or plan over another. Rather, mediation is the catalyst to assure that a project is well defined, that the common interests of the participants are identified, and that all the viable options are explored, prioritized, and smartly assigned. Most importantly, mediators quickly resolve differences in opinion.

Mediation has become a "value add" to thriving businesses on several fronts, and is no longer limited to solving employee complaints. Mediation is also about resolving process and policy disagreements among those who are charged with creating best practices.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 400,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.