Peacemaking at the United Nations
I have a friend, now retired, who had a big job for many years at the United Nations organizing peacekeeping missions and overseeing the human resource function. I wondered what insights he might offer to resolve work force disputes among employees from all around the globe from different backgrounds, different cultures and different value systems. Here's what he told me:
First, meet with the disputants in a conference room, not someone's office. A conference room signals that this is an important meeting and needs to be taken seriously.
Second, spend time engaged in what might be called "small talk." How's the family? What about those White Sox? How was traffic coming in to work this morning in the snow? Small talk relaxes people and gets everyone comfortable.
Third, ask disputants what they hope to get out of the resolution process and record their responses. What are their goals? What do they hope to gain? Not their bottom line, but generally where do they hope to take the conflict.
Fourth, try to identify the real source of the conflict and address it. This is not always evident as participants may not be honest or even recognize what's driving the dispute.
Fifth, once the source of the dispute is recognized, look for ways to resolve it to everyone's satisfaction.
Sixth, as the discussion proceeds, write down any points of agreement seeking to identify as many as possible in order to create a feeling of progress and relief. Points of disagreement are also recorded, but bracketed to distinguish them. Discussion will return to the bracketed points of disagreement later. A flip chart could be used for all to see the words recorded. Parties are told the writing is a tool to facilitate discussion only and will be destroyed afterward. Only a written agreement signed by all will be kept.
Seventh, in case of impasse, take a break. Give everyone time to regroup and think through what happened and how best to move forward.
Eighth, after reconvening, if impasse continues or a second impasse arises, keep working. And working. And working. No breaks for lunch or dinner. My friend doesn't announce there will be no breaks, but he remains at the table - as long as necessary. People are smart. They get what is happening. At some point, getting out of that conference room or dealing with hunger pangs will seem more important than whatever point was hanging up the process. Resolution is sure to follow.
Like the United Nations, mediators are in the peacekeeping business. Perhaps there are lessons for us to learn from how they do it at the UN!