Worth fighting for

Joanna Pearl is a service development officer for
Hounslow social services in London. She leads on departmental
transport and quality assurance in learning difficulties services.
As a social worker she developed an ongoing interest in working
with people with dementia. She volunteers for a domestic violence
helpline and is a workplace mediator.

Kiranjit and Alan*, social workers in a busy area team, have
barely spoken since months of conflict culminated in a public,
heated exchange. Kiranjit claims that Alan is not performing to
standard. Alan feels victimised and bullied. Both are looking for
other jobs and have had time off sick because of stress-related
illness. Their manager feels unable to deal constructively with the
complex issues that lie behind the conflict and is worried by the
low morale that is starting to pervade the team. How can a conflict
that has gone so far be resolved?

A month later, after much hard work, Kiranjit and Alan meet their
two mediators. As the session progresses they gradually make eye
contact. Alan describes his pressures as a newly qualified worker
and the single parent of a disabled child. Kiranjit has a large
caseload and heavy responsibilities as a new manager.

As they acknowledge their mutual anger and pain, they start to
realise that they share concerns, goals and standards.

Denise July is one of 20 workplace mediators within the London
Borough of Hounslow’s fair treatment unit. She describes the
epiphany when participants like Kiranjit and Alan start to show
real insight, empathy and positive movement: “A mediator’s job is
challenging and sometimes energy-sapping, but those are really
exciting moments and a privilege to witness.”

July’s role as workplace mediator is additional to her “day job”
and required six days’ intensive training and support. The unit’s
mediation service is a voluntary option to which individuals can

It is a progressive approach to help individuals and teams avoid
(where appropriate) formal grievance and disciplinary procedures.
These ways of dealing with conflict can be disempowering and
expensive, and often result in one party “winning” and the other
By contrast, mediation can result in a “win-win” for both
participants. Mediators empower and support participants to resolve
their own conflict, stressing confidentiality and a
non-judgemental, non-blaming value base. It works between people at
all levels. But it requires commitment and honesty; it is not the
easy option.

There are good reasons for tackling conflicts. In their book
Resolving Conflict,1 Shay and Margaret McConnon
highlight research that indicates that a typical manager loses 25
per cent of the day responding to unhelpful conflict. And they say:
“Conflict is not inevitable simply because we are different. We can
disagree and not be in conflict. Conflict is more to do with style
than substance.”

Even though social care professionals are often skilled in dealing
with conflict encountered during their work with clients, and
usually work in supportive teams, they are far from immune to it in
their own relationships. We all deal with conflict differently,
influenced by our upbringings.

Most people – social care professionals or not – find it is easy to
get stuck in one “position” when facing someone else with a
different view: we state what we want and refuse to budge. Often we
cannot establish “facts”. Views become entrenched and conflict

Mediation asks “why” to get to the real motivating factors – our
interests or needs. The basic counselling skills at the core of
mediation are active non-judgemental listening, showing empathy,
and positive “reframing”. A mediator uses these skills in a
structured way to facilitate dialogue, analysing participants’ key
issues, areas of agreement and differences. People feel heard and
can then start to hear the other person.

Mediation skills can help with reframing conflict when dealing with
our clients, our colleagues and even our families. A mediator might
re-frame a disputant’s statement: “I can’t work with someone who
makes the office such a disgusting mess” as “It’s important for you
to have an organised and tidy workplace”, in order to remove the
blame and move things forward.

So, how do we make our workplaces mediation-friendly? Perhaps
mediation skills training should be part of an induction process
for every new manager. We could put conflict on the agenda as an
organisational training and development issue. Or perhaps we can
simply start by acknowledging the key role that difference and
diversity play in workplace relationships.

David Liddle, director of mediation organisation Total Conflict
Management, says the skills underpinning mediation are “applicable
throughout public sector organisations. From teaching young people
the skills to address conflicts with non-violent communication to
helping elected councillors understand and communicate with their
constituents. Mediation is definitely not just about

Kiranjit and Alan’s final agreement accepted that they would never
be friends, but through mediation they set ground rules to use in
their future professional relationship. They have moved from ideas
of blame and punishment to realistic expectations. They will
inevitably experience conflict again, but now have the tools to
deal with it.

* Kiranjit and Alan are a fictional case study based on real
examples of mediation in action

Steps in the mediation process

1. Referral – both potential participants must agree to this. Their
case is assessed for mediation suitability.

2. Introductory meeting – each participant has a separate
introductory meeting with their two independent mediators, to
clarify the process, the history of the conflict and possible
future expectations.

3. Indirect mediation – each participant has one (sometimes two)
separate meeting/s with the two mediators. The mediators start to
facilitate safe sharing of information between participants,
explore issues in more detail, and encourage participants to listen
to the other’s perspective.

4. Direct mediation – the mediators bring the participants together
for one or two structured meetings. Participants can talk and be
heard, discuss concerns and issues, and develop options for future
working and a shared “memorandum of understanding” (future action

Adapted from The Mediation Handbook by Total Conflict


Social care professionals often possess mediation skills and use
them effectively with clients, but are not immune to demoralising
workplace conflict. In fact, research suggests managers spend up to
a quarter of their time dealing with conflict within their teams.
This article describes the positive use of mediation to resolve
conflict in the workplace, thereby avoiding formal disciplinary and
grievance procedures.


1 S and M McConnon,
Resolving Conflict, How To, 2002

Further information

  • R Fisher and W Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement
    Without Giving In
    , Penguin, 1991
  • J Beer and E Stief, The Mediator’s Handbook, New
    Society, 1997
  • To contact Total Conflict Management, go to: www.tcmsolutions.co.uk

Contact the author

Contact Joanna Pearl at: Joanna.pearl@hounslow.gov.uk

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