While it has been building up for some years, I’ve observed face-to-face conversations becoming a dying art. This can be likely attributed to the divide created by the convenience and speed of digital communication. But consider, where would we be if not for digital communication throughout the pandemic? Add to that ‘social distancing’ and other work-life restrictions to the societal mix, and we have a cocktail of starved and sometimes messy interactions. In fact, according to a recent Harvard Business Review report, our professional and personal networks have decreased by 16 percent. That’s a caseload of lost conversation and small talk!
In my practice, many recent neighbour dispute consultations start with me asking if there has been an initial discussion with a neighbour about the fence, noise, encroachments or the tree branches (and, occasionally, falling fruit) in dispute. 9 times of 10, there has not, because of fear of a reaction or reprisal. And yet, many of the same people think that they want a lawyer to send an angry letter—something that I try to talk them out of.
This leads me to the workplace and return-to-work scenarios, and the many tough talks and difficult conversations that are taking place between employers and employees, supervisors and staff, employees with one another, and so on, including: vaccinated or unvaccinated; masks or no masks; accommodation; hybrid work models; touchdown workspace; health, safety and cleaning norms; and many more—including heightened points of view on any particular topic these days it seems.
Some astute employers plan to embed conflict resolution into the design of their ‘new’ workplace environment and team building models; to help promote problem solving, simmer interoffice verbal arguments, encourage creativity and nurture well-being.
It got me thinking… both my legal and mediation practices are about resolving conflict. How can I share my best practices for civil and productive conversation with prospective and current employment law clients to help them de-escalate, head off or resolve any dispute?
When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short-term discomfort for long-term dysfunction.— Peter Bromberg, speaker, staff development
Here are my top three conflict resolution strategies to help guide your tough talk:
- Lay out the facts as a problem to be jointly solved. Frame the situation as a problem for which you are seeking help so you can solve it together. Better yet: Frame the problem as an opportunity to improve the workplace. Always avoid blame, and inflammatory language.
- Practice active listening. Employers often circulate employee surveys for feedback to X, Y or Z. A good practice is to act on those findings. You may want to get more information directly from employees before acting though. If you do, be sure to listen more than you speak, and resist the urge to interrupt or finish sentences. Listen to understand, not to win. And listen for nuance. A good suggestion for that is to say, “Tell me more.”
- Be open and neutral. As much as possible, stay above the fray and avoid taking sides. You can still be supportive of an individual employee without agreeing with their side of story—especially when you don’t have all sides (or facts) to the story. Think of yourself as an “information gatherer” and not someone who is looking for blame. Get the facts first before you react. Finally, be prepared to have your assumptions challenged. Gain agreement that a problem exists and discuss the consequences if the problem continues.
While I am not a workplace dispute mediator, as an employment lawyer and a mediator of wrongful dismissal cases, I encourage employers to engage workplace mediators if a dispute cannot be resolved without third party intervention (and better to involve a mediator early when the employment relationship can still be salvaged than later when the relationship has already ended and there is a possible lawsuit).
More often than not, legal documents like contracts, policies and handbooks can help employers reduce conflict by making it crystal clear what is expected from everyone—especially going into new workplace models—and helps form context for dispute resolution models. I would welcome the opportunity to assist you with any of these documents.
Mitchell Rose is a Chartered Mediator and employment lawyer with Rose Dispute Resolution/Mitchell Rose Law in the Greater Toronto Area. For more information or to book a mediation, contact us mitchellrose.ca/contact.
This blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal or other professional advice.