Voice of Reason: How to mediate a difficult conversation


Want to mediate a difficult conversation?  Here's how.

Navigating conflict is never pleasant.  And it can be doubly hard to witness friends or colleagues in the midst of a disagreement that doesn’t directly involve you.  Especially when you find value in both sides of the argument.  This week we offer guidance on how to communicate neutrally and mediate a difficult conversation. Spoiler alert: remaining neutral doesn’t mean you won’t have to communicate your opinion.  Rather, you’ll communicate an opinion devoid of judgement.  Just the facts, ma’am, if you will.

Schedule some QT

I recommend carving out time to talk privately with those involved in the dispute individually.  It’s important to establish that your conversation is a means to an end.  In other words, discourage a confessional or ‘bitch fest’. Instead, frame the conversation as a necessary step on the road to resolution.  It’s important that the person in conflict understands you intend to use the information they share with you in your pursuit to help identify a resolution.

Active listening skills are also crucial. Pay attention. Maintain eye contact.  Do not interrupt.  Visualize what’s being said. When necessary, ask questions in order to better understand their feelings. And what they need to regain their sense of safety and respect.  At the root of almost of every conflict is the feeling that those you’re in conflict with don’t respect your needs or value what’s important to you.

Insert Yourself Into the Equation

Once you have an understanding of each person’s individual experience and what they need in order to move beyond the conflict you’ve reached a powerful juncture. Ask yourself, what is the best way to neutrally convey these feelings on behalf of those involved?  How do those involved need to hear what they have not yet been able to understand or acknowledge? We often impress upon our clients that it’s not what you say but how you say it.

Meet On Neutral Ground

Pick a spot where everyone feels safe.  Maybe it’s your local bar.  A park or coffee shop.  Perhaps the conversation has to happen at work.  Do your best to identify a physical setting that’s private and isn’t the “scene of the crime”.  Maintaining a calm and neutral setting will put those involved in a better position to communicate openly and honestly.  

It’s crucial that everyone arrives with a clear understanding of why they’ve come together.  Is it to reestablish a line of communication?  Reach a compromise?  Retain respect for one another while agreeing to disagree?  Crystallizing the objective ahead of time is a productive way to begin a difficult conversation.

Now You’re Ready to Mediate

Start by thanking everyone for coming together and acknowledge that it’s awkward.  Not shying away from the fact everyone’s uncomfortable will set a precedent for speaking honestly.  State the pre-established communal objective for coming together and ask everyone to verbalize their agreement to it.  There are many studies that have looked at how saying ‘yes’ engenders feelings of goodwill and camaraderie.

Now frame each person’s feelings on their behalf.  Be careful not to ascribe value or judgement. Yet don’t shy away from sharing your assessment of the situation.  Your neutral vantage point is valuable and can guide those involved toward understanding how others are feeling.  

Then give each person the floor one at a time. Discourage yelling which releases adrenaline and cortisol.  This tightens blood vessels and sends blood pressure soaring.  The conversation may become quite uncomfortable but that’s not necessarily bad.  

Hopefully a resolution will be reached yet if it isn’t that doesn’t mean you’ve failed.  Creating a space for people to communicate calmly and honestly is an admirable feat.  Give yourself credit for working to help others communicate effectively and truly be heard.