April 01, 2016

The New SHRM Competency Guidelines: Should HR Professionals Mediate Internal Workplace Disputes?


For many years the gold standard for HR certification in the USA, endorsed and supported by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), was provided by the knowledge focused HR Certification Institute that awarded the Professional HR (PHR) and Senior Professional HR (SPHR) designations.

All that changed when in May 2014 SHRM announced a new competency based certification process that they would administer as an alternative to the HRCI certification, with two new certification designations: the SHRM certified professional (SHRM-CP) and the SHRM senior certified professional (SHRM-SCP).

Henry G. Jackson, SHRM president and CEO at the time said: “We view SHRM certification as the next evolution of certification for HR professionals. Certification started out as testing for knowledge. Now it’s evolving to how to demonstrate competency.”

Many expressed surprised at the way things were handled. At the very least, it has been awkward and created confusion among HR Professionals as HRCI seeks to maintain, and SHRM now seeks to grow, its certification numbers! Exactly how this tension will play out, remains to be seen.

What is interesting, is that the new SHRM competency guidelines are very explicit about how HR professionals manage conflict as part of their relationship management obligations and in particular state that senior HR professionals should be able “to mediate difficult employee relations situations as a neutral.”

However, when I talk to HR professionals, most are not fully convinced that mediation is a required HR skill.  For the most part they think that mediators are like attorneys and that mediation is a formal legal process. In addition, they express concern about their ability to remain neutral.

Mediation is a conciliatory process that is premised on an acceptable third party not making a decision on behalf of those in dispute. Rather, they support the conflicted participants to find their own way. Here’s how I define mediation:

Mediation is a conciliatory process in which an acceptable third party intervenes in the conflict or disputes of partici­pants, in our case, employees, with the goal of supporting them to reach agreement.

A myriad of benefits flow from adopting a mediating approach including the obvious stronger buy in, more creative solutions, emotional closure and a positive impact on the bottom line.

More informally, what this means, is that when you sit down with two employees to facilitate a conversation and help them to work something out without telling them what to do, you are effectively mediating. HR professionals, not just employee relations specialists, do this all the time!

What matters most is whether you are acceptable to the employees who are in conflict. Which means they are willing to give you a chance to be their conflict resolution guide. Even when mediation is mandated, if you as the mediator are not accepted, there is not much that you can do.

And if you are deemed acceptable, you do your best not to take sides. You are neutral, impartial, balanced and equally there for all.

If our definition of mediation was premised on attaining pure neutrality, we’d never get to mediate. Which is why I prefer to say that mediators need to be acceptable and strive to be neutral.

Whether or not you are taking sides is for the participants to determine.  What we do know is that HR professionals do mediate conversations between conflicted employees all the time, whatever they may call it.

Maybe it in the striving to be neutral, rather than the attaining, that allows the mediator to be effective. And this, I believe, is well within the grasp of most HR professionals. Especially when all you want is for two employees to get along and do their job!

That said, it is not just senior HR professionals that according to SHRM, need to be neutral. Early level HR professionals are expected to develop a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR representative.”

And mid-level professionals are expected to “develop a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR professional serving employees and the organization.”

Clearly SHRM thinks it’s possible for HR professionals to be neutral mediators of internal workplace conflicts.

But what about the HRCI, and what is the full extent of the SHRM relationship management competency obligations?


20% of the questions for the Professional in HR (PHR) and 14% for the Senior Professional in HR (SPHR) certification tests are devoted to employee and labor relations. Employee and labor relations is considered an important part of any HR professional’s responsibilities and is described as follows:

“Developing, implementing/administering and evaluating the workplace in order to maintain relationships and working conditions that balance employer/employee needs and rights in support of the organization’s goals and objectives.”

When we drill down to see what functional responsibilities and knowledge HRCI requires, we find many references to the word investigate, and significantly the word mediation is mentioned only once:

“Investigate and resolve employee complaints filed with federal agencies involving employment practices or working conditions, utilizing professional resources as necessary (for example: legal counsel, mediation/arbitration specialists and investigators.”

 Clearly the HRCI certifications do not place much emphasis on mediation, other than as a process with external professionals in the context of cases filed with federal agencies.

Their general tool of choice is the investigation. This inevitably leads to a focus on rights more than needs, and not the emotional underpinnings of the conflict.

In addition there is a provision stating that HR professionals should have, “Techniques and tools for facilitating positive employee relations (for example: employee surveys, dispute/conflict resolution, labor/management cooperative strategies)”

Still no mention of mediation as an HR skill, but HR professionals are expected to be able to support positive employee relations through facilitation.  Mediation is of course a form of facilitation. We facilitate conversations and allow them to reach their agreements.

Given that HRCI has been the gold standard for so long it’s no wonder that not much emphasis has been placed on mediation here in the USA.

However, a case can be made to say that HRCI expect HR Professionals to have conflict resolution capacity and to be able to facilitate as well.


But what about the new SHRM competency guidelines. What exactly do they say about mediation and conflict resolution more broadly?

The SHRM competency model identifies nine competencies that define what it means to be a successful HR professional. Relationship management is one of them.

Relationship management is defined as “the ability to manage interactions to provide service and to support the organization.” Here is more of what they mean by relationship management:

 To manage interactions while providing supportive service, “HR professionals should maintain productive interpersonal relationships and demonstrate aptitude to help others to do the same.”

 They note that “healthy interpersonal relationships among employees at an organization contribute positively to employee and organizational success.”

This is the graphic SHRM provided to summarize the focus areas of the four different levels of HR. It’s like the bird’s eye view of the relationship management competency.


When we take a closer look at what is expected competency wise for each of the levels we see a focus on relationship management, conflict resolution and the skill of mediation.

 What is apparent, is that the focus of the skill set has shifted dramatically from what the HRCI certification entailed. The emphasis is on conflict management in the broadest sense and embodies many best practices from that field.

In addition, HR professionals are expected to be developing their conflict management competencies at all levels and that by the time you get to a mid-level, are expected to be able to mediate.

Most HR professionals have heard about mediation, but not all are confident in their ability to mediate successfully.

What is apparent is that to comply with the SHRM competency standards HR professionals need to be conflict resolution competent. They need to be able to handle their own conflict challenges well, and help out others with their conflicts. In a nutshell they need to be conflict competent mediators.

What is fascinating, is that SHRM, accurately in my view, identified what it is that HR professionals (and other leaders for that matter) do a lot of the time in the management of employees: mediate.

However, for the most part, they don’t know that they are already mediating. Certainly they are mediating informally more often than they realize.

This is encouraging as with a little training and guidance HR professionals make great mediators.

In conclusion, my answer is yes! HR professionals should continue to mediate workplace conflicts and disputes as confirmed in part by the HRCI and in full by SHRM.

And while concerns about neutrality are well founded, there is still a way to use the mindset and process of the mediator with diplomacy.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this question…

SHRM Relationship Management Competency

Key attributes that focus on conflict management:


Early level expectations focus on:

  • Listening without immediately providing the solution,
  • Making referrals of difficult situations to their manager,
  • Preventing transactional conflicts and when that is not possible facilitating their resolution,
  • Providing information about conflict resolution options, and
  • Developing a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR representative.

 Mid-level expectations focus on:

  • Recognizing potential employee relations issues in a proactive manner and resolving the issue,
  • Mediating difficult interactions, and escalating problems when warranted,
  • Developing a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR professional serving employees and the organization,
  • Fostering a positive team environment among staff, and
  • Facilitating conflict resolution meetings.

 Senior level expectations focus on:

  • Mediating difficult employee relations as a neutral party,
  • Developing policies and practices for resolving conflicts,
  • Resolving escalated conflicts among stakeholders,
  • Managing challenging issues in union and non-union environments,
  • Negotiating with internal and external stakeholders,
  • Building consensus and settling disputes internal to HR on policy and practice decisions, and
  • Facilitating difficult interactions among organizational stakeholders to achieve optimal outcomes.

Executive level expectations focus on:

  • Creating conflict resolution strategies and processes throughout the organization,
  • Negotiating with internal and external stakeholders to advance the interests of the organization,
  • Fostering a culture that supports intra-organizational relationships throughout organization,
  • Proactively developing relationships with peers, clients, suppliers, board members, and senior leaders.

March 07, 2016

When employees are stuck in the pain of the past, how do we support them to move on?


You know… 

When you have an employee that has confided in you about something painful that they haven’t yet shared with their boss. 

And they don’t want you to raise the issue either. 

But they want to know what they should do? 

So you start by just giving them empathy, because without it, nothing is going to happen. 

You acknowledge their experience as fully as you can. 

You imagine and intuit, (to paraphrase Daniel Pink’s definition of empathy) what it is that they are feeling. 

This has a calming effect. 

As the truth of their subjective emotional experience is acknowledged - without defensiveness and without justification - they can relax and let their guard down. 

So now they are somewhat open. 

But be careful. 

If you invalidate they will close up again. 

As long as they are open you can attend to their original question. 

This takes great patience. 

To take the time necessary to hear out someone who is upset before attending to their request for your advice. 

Remember their question. 

What they should do to address the painful situation with their boss? 

Yours was how to get them to move on when they are stuck? 

You know to start with theirs. 

And of course you hope they get that they have a choice to communicate directly or not, (because often, until they do communicate, like in this situation, their boss has no idea of their grievance!) 

They may give you a quizzical light-bulb look and say something like, 

“You are right, I suppose we have to talk!” 

So they talk. 

And let’s say they resolve their issues in a manner of speaking. 

But when the employee comes back next month you know they didn’t really. 

And of course, now it’s much worse. 

So you read them the riot act!!! 


You start with empathy. 

You listen.

You acknowledge. 

You reflect back feelings and needs. 

And when they say, 

“So I tried talking . . . you see nothing helps . . . What should I do now?” 

You tell them they have a choice. 

That they can continue to pursue the resolution of their difference through external communication practices and even possibly with the support of you as a mediator. 

But that there is another choice. 

It is one of two ways that people are able to move on from the pain of the past. 

One is through true deep emotional acknowledgement of the truth of their experience by the other person. 

It may include a sincere apology. 

When this happens the transformation within a particular relationship can be profound. 

But when there is no acknowledgment, most humans get stuck. 

It is hard, when we have been hurt by another, with whom you are in relationship and they don’t acknowledge the truth of the impact of their behavior, notwithstanding their intent. 

Even mediation as a process that supports the resolution of conflict, has limits. 

It is no panacea. 

So what about that other way? 

I call it the internal path of conflict resolution. 

It is also known as the path of forgiveness. 

When we forgive, we let go of resentments. 

We don't need an apology. 

At its essence, as my friend and colleague Eileen Barker suggests, forgiveness is a decision to let go of the past and to tell a new story about what occurred. 

Paradoxically we grow from our inner inquiry. 

But how? 

One of the leading pioneers in research into forgiveness is Stanford’s Fred Luskin. 

He points out, that when we forgive, we invert the grievance process. 

When we grieve we take it personally and blame others for how we are feeling. 

We tell ourselves a story in which we are the victim. 

We hold them accountable for our peace of mind. 

When we forgive, we undo this grievance process. 

Instead of taking things personally, we recognize that things happen. 

But that these things are seldom as problematic as our own reaction. 

So when we forgive, we take responsibility for our own feelings. 

We learn our lessons and we retell our story, no longer as a victim, but as a navigator with a deeper understanding of the significance of the event to our lives. 

Remember, the questions. 

Yours was how to get them to move on when they are stuck? 

Theirs: What they should do to address the painful situation with their boss? 

Forgiveness is one of two ways we move on. 

The other is through heartfelt acknowledgement of emotional truth through communication with the other if necessary with the support of you as a mediator. 

Seems like the same answer works for both questions. 

What do you think?

November 16, 2015

To Vent or Not to Vent, that is the question!

I suspect that we have all vented our anger at some point in time.

You know, let off some steam, in the moment or after the fact, whether directly at the apparent source of our anger or at a substitute (like an innocent co-worker).

We may even have encouraged another to vent!

But, is venting a good idea?

My colleague, Tammy Lenski, recently described venting as one of the great conflict resolution myths that still abounds today:

“While venting anger may feel cathartic, venting anger doesn’t purge aggression from your system or improve your psychological state. In fact, venting is more likely to increase anger and aggressiveness than reduce them.”*


She bases her assertion on the research by Dr Brad Bushman at Iowa State University:

“Catharsis theory predicts that venting anger should get rid of it and should therefore reduce subsequent aggression. The present findings, as well as previous findings, directly contradict catharsis theory (e.g., Bushman et al., 1999; Geen & Quanty, 1977). For reducing anger and aggression, the worst possible advice to give people is to tell them to imagine their provocateur’s face on a pillow or punching bag as they wallop it, yet this is precisely what many pop psychologists advise people to do. If followed, such advice will only make people angrier and more aggressive.”**

The dilemma: We need to acknowledge our emotions, but not in a way that reinforces anger or aggression.

Rather, we need to get the emotion’s message so we can respond consciously in the moment, and if possible release any unintegrated negative emotional charge from our past.

Venting seldom changes the situation in a positive way, or prevents it from happening again.

In fact, it becomes an unhealthy habit that makes things worse! We traumatize ourselves with each retelling, searing more neurons to wire together around our pain.

So, what can we do?

Venting is not the emotion. It is the behavior.

Meaning, with awareness of our anger, we can choose to behave differently.

The emotion of anger signifies that we care about something, but feel powerless to address the situation to our satisfaction.

Instead of indulging in the behavior of venting we can explore strategies to address our needs in a positive manner.

And, if we must vent, we can limit ourselves to express it just once and then, as is often suggested for folk working in crisis centers, for not more than 5 minutes.

We can choose the person that we express our dissatisfaction to with care. Some are going to encourage us to take personal responsibility for our feelings and act consciously. Others are going to encourage us to do battle and blame.

And when we can, we can explore why it is that we experienced anger in the first place.

Exploring the energetic relationship between what is triggering us in the present moment, and the original emotional imprinting points the way to reducing our negative emotional charge (real results).

So be careful with venting.

It’s not as beneficial as we have been led to believe.

Unless we seek more anger and aggression in our lives!

*5 Common Beliefs about Conflict that are Dead Wrong by Tammi Lenski

** Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding, by Brad J. Bushman at Iowa State University

October 29, 2015

What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy, and why has Sympathy got such a bad name?

By John Ford

Have you ever wondered about the difference between empathy and sympathy?

And if you have, why sympathy has got such a bad name?

I addressed these very questions in the recent pilot of my online course that focused on Challenging Workplace Relationships, but was prompted to write this after watching a short online video  narrated by Dr. Brené Brown.

In the video Dr Brown says that empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection. To empathize, she says, we must 'internalize the feelings of another'.

In the examples she gives she suggests that we sympathize when we avoid acknowledging others difficult feelings and also when we minimize the experience of another, such as when we ‘silver-line’ with expressions like, “at least you have a job,” after hearing that the person was demoted.

I agree that these last two practices (avoidance and minimizing) are not empathetic, but I am not sure that they are what sympathy is about. Or indeed the real reasons for sympathy’s bad name.

As is often the case, words have numerous meanings. Sympathy’s Latin roots point to ‘similar feelings’ (sympathia and pathos).

However, the primary sense in most modern dictionaries suggest that sympathy means “pity or sorrow for someone’s misfortune.”

Sympathy as pity is dis-empowering and fuels disconnection. Comments like “I don’t want your sympathy” confirm this.

We want to be allowed to feel our feelings, rather than be rescued by the sympathizer who can never actually feel for us!

I agree that this sense is unfortunate and I suspect a reason for sympathy’s bad name.

But sympathy can also refer to the original Latin meaning and our capacity to recognize a common feeling. We sense that the other person may be feeling something similar to what we have previously experienced and sympathize.
As the listener, if we express our sympathy we may say “I was also ‘gutted’ when my team lost!”

The apparent danger is that unless we are careful we shift the focus away from the other. Now it’s about me and my team!

That’s another reason for its bad name.

So what then is empathy, and how is it different?

Empathy is our capacity to sense and understand what another is feeling from their – nor our – point of view.

This to me is vital. The focus is on them and how they make sense of their feelings.

So while I listen to my English friend bemoan their loss in the rugby world cup, I can sympathize as suggested above as I know what it feels like to lose.

But I can also empathize.

And when I do the shift is apparent. “I imagine you were gutted when your team lost! Especially as hosts. Must really hurt!”

As is suggested by Paul Bellet and Michael Maloney, our perspective becomes superfluous, certainly secondary to that of the speaker:

“Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes.”

At best my frame of reference and knowledge of rugby can help me to understand what my friend is feeling (sympathy), but empathy lies in my ultimate ability to demonstrate to my friend that I understand him and his woes.

Empathy builds connection, and is based on authentic attention to the other.

Sympathy can move us toward, but is not the same as empathy.

In the same way that avoidance and minimization are neither sympathetic nor empathetic.

Much ado about nothing?

Not so sure. Words matter.

Sympathy has its place, but there are dangers.

Which is why for life’s challenges,

I prefer empathy!

August 10, 2015

Are you safe from Mixed Messages?


I recently received feedback on a video I had created to promote my online course that focuses on the skills to handle Challenging Workplace Relationships.

I had posted the video on my personal Facebook page and asked my friends for some honest feedback! 

Let’s just say, that wasn’t easy! 

But I did it - anyway. 

And what I heard, from a number of kind friends, was that there was a disconnect between the use of my hands and my voice! 

Also - that I was looking down at my audience. Rather than being on the level! 

I can easily change the angle of the camera. But what about the disconnect? How best do I address that?

Very simply, by ensuring congruency between my words, the tone of my voice and my body language.

According to Albert Mehrabian, a communication researcher from UCLA, when we are conveying our feelings or attitudes and there is any incongruency between what is being said, the tone of the voice and the body language, we place the least importance on the words used. 

When there is an incongruency, the words have a value of 7%, the tone 38% and the body language 55%. 

If someone shouts “I’m not angry” and pounds the desk while glaring, we discount the words. We give primacy to the message of the body. 

Sadly, this statistic has been misrepresented to mean that in all communication words only constitute 7% of the message! 

I was at a workshop recently where the presenter said exactly that. That’s more like an incorrect message! 

This short video called Busting the Mehrabian Myth that makes it crystal clear what the research really says. 

To peace at work with peace of mind!

July 17, 2015

Why are some - but not all - relationships challenging?


"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." 
Carl Jung

When relationships challenge us, it is stressful. 

It does get dramatic. 

We do lose our sanity. 

And we do wonder about the meaning of it all.

Physically we experience the sensations of tension, numbness, headaches, stomach ache, pain, stress, fatigue and illness. 

Emotionally our landscape includes drama, manipulation and conflict. Negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, contempt, confusion, disgust, depression, fear, jealousy, worry and sadness are common. 

Mentally things aren’t better. We experience sense making challenges and misunderstandings. The temptation to narrate a right-wrong victim story, be judgmental and have punitive thoughts predominates. 

And we may even lose the plot, questioning life's ultimate meaning and purpose. 

But that is really just HOW relationships are challenging.

What about the WHY! 

Why are relationships challenging?

First, a relationship is challenging because of one, or a combination of three things: YOU, the OTHER and the CONTEXT!

Second, you and the other, as humans, have limitations that can create challenges.

For one, we are far more emotional than we really care to admit. Another is that our memories are not that reliable and we remember things differently without deceptive intentions. For those that try to do too much at the same time, it is now clear that neither woman nor men can really multitask. And if that’s not enough- the placebo affect confirms just how often expectation creates our reality! There is a reason we talk about self-fulfilling prophecies!

Third, most of us lack awareness of our own challenging behaviors or attitudes. Without awareness change is unlikely and even when we are aware, we are oftennot motivated to change.

For those that are aware and are motivated, there may be capacity challenges that make it impossible.

But if we or the other can overcome these obstacles, then the focus of the challenge turns to skills. Specifically, the development of emotionally resonant relationship management skills. 

To navigate the reality of your challenges you need to be able to listen with empathy, express yourself clearly, give and receive feedback openly without defensiveness, assert collaboratively (and sometimes say NO), resolve differences fairly and at times to forgive authentically.

And what this confirms is that there is a lot that you can do yourself first, before you consider the other or indeed the context.

Jung reminds us our challenges can become our opportunities for insight, change and growth.

As we understand ourselves better, we understand others better too. 

If you are tired of being stuck in relationships that are stressful, dramatic, confusing and depressing and are interested in transforming your challenges into opportunities please get on the wait list for the next time  the six week online course Challenging Workplace Relationships runs. 

July 03, 2015

What exactly is a challenging relationship?

“Sometimes people behave badly on purpose, but often we just lose touch with who we are.” Sharon Salzberg

The question of how best to deal with relationship challenges in our life is not new!

And as Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work, notes; ‘bad behavior’ can be as a result of intentional malice but most often is not.

When we perceive ourselves to be on the receiving end of what we label as ‘bad’ or challenging behavior, we are often judgmental of both the behavior and the motive (intent) of the other.

It is not uncommon for there to be blame.

And it is also not uncommon for us to also lose touch with who we are.

Just as much as the other who acted ‘badly’ may have lost touch with themselves.

That seems to be the difficulty. That as much as we want to control our external world to secure inner peace we find that there is much going on within us that is also part of the challenging mix!

So then, what exactly is a challenging relationship?

Very simply, a challenging relationship is one that you have concluded is challenging!

In other words the test is subjective and very personal.

It means that your difficult person may be liked by many. You may or may not be the only one bothered. And, you may be shocked to find that others – using this same subjective test - find you challenging at times!

This subjective approach is intentional. It avoids ‘typing’ and excessive labeling in which the identification of qualities justify a diagnosis or ‘type’.

See, for example, the book “How People Tick: A Guide to Over 50 Types of Difficult People and How to Handle Them” by Mike Leibling. How anyone can remember all the 50 different types of difficult people or indeed what to do for each is beyond me.

At the end of the day, you will know if you are at peace or not. And if your perception is that the relationship is in any way;

  • Threatening not safe
  • Negative not positive
  • Difficult not easy
  • Defensive not open
  • Hostile not friendly
  • Confusing not clear
  • Draining not energizing
  • Toxic not healthy

Then you have a challenging relationship!

Now, I hasten to add that this conclusion does not entitle you to blame or do any of the other things that will make the situation worse.

But at least you won’t get stuck arguing about whether the behavior or attitude meets the definition of challenging behavior. Or which type it is! Or what to do assuming you have the correct type!

There are 10 things that I have identified that are guaranteed to make things worse. One is labelling and typing.

Another is blame!

When things turn out differently to what we hoped and we are disappointed and even angry because our needs are not being met, we often blame the proverbial other for what went wrong.

The benefit is that we may get sympathy and care. Sometimes shared outrage! And as long as the focus of blame is more external on the other or the environment, we can avoid our own feelings of pain and responsibility. Remember, our part in the challenging mix!

When we blame we make a judgment and hold the other person responsible for a situation from the past based on our perception and interpretation of the facts. As the authors of Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton, Heen) say, “blame is about judging and looking backwards.”

Blame elicits defensiveness. It reduces the likelihood of learning about what is really causing the difficulty or from doing anything helpful about it.

A blame conversation is not the only conversation humans can have when things go wrong. I will always be grateful to Stone, Patton and Heen who revealed a worthy process alternative: a contribution conversation.

“A contribution conversation is about understanding and looks forward.”

Instead of asking whose fault is it, we openly ask how we each contributed to the situation in question:

What is my contribution to the situation?

What did we each do?

What can we learn?

Instead of defensiveness and concealment that prevents learning when we take the blame route, we discover through our candid revealing that we can learn from our individual and collective mistakes.

Here’s how the two approaches look side to side. Where the blame cycle grows and leads to more of the same challenge, the contribution conversation is balancing and reduces the problem.


We all experience challenging relationships and as the wise Sharon Salzberg cautions - most of the time it is from good folk, like you and me, losing touch with who we really are.

How positive do we need to be in our relationships?

According to evidence based psychologist, John Gottman, “the ratio of positive to negative affect during conflict in stable relationships is 5:1; in couples headed for divorce, it is 0.8:1!” 

As Gottman points out, this does not require that we declare war on negative emotions.

All emotions have value when we view them as sources of decision making information to navigate life. In fact, without them, we would be rudderless! 

Take anger, as an example of a negative emotion. 

Anger arises when someone or something is interfering with the attainment of our actual or expected needs. There is a sense of being powerless about the situation. It burns a lot of energy and is ultimately tiring. There is a danger of impulsive and premature decisions.

Importantly, emotions are not the same as the behavior that follows. Slamming the door, shouting and acting out is the behavior. Not the emotion! 

These graphics give us a window into what is occurring. In the healthy couple on the left we see that the trend is generally upward despite moments of rupture and contraction. On the right, the trend reflects the downward spiral of poorly managed conflict.
One practical application of this insight (where I have had great success) is with email. As research by Kristin Byron, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005, shows, regardless of the sender’s intention, recipients interpret the impact of emails to be:

• Neutral when they are positive
• Negative when they are neutral

I was coaching a client recently. He told me that he had just received an email from his boss, and needed to respond. His concern about what he was going to say was preventing him from focusing, so I asked if he’d like to draft his reply during our session. 

He said yes, and I gave him a moment to write something out. We then took a look together and I asked him to indicate – sentence by sentence – whether his boss would perceive the statement as positive, negative or neutral. His score: 5 negative, 2 neutral and 2 positive sentences!

As a result of this review, his changes and additions, we were able to significantly shift the tone and tenor of the email from negative to positive. We removed ‘unnecessary story’, negative leaks, and outright threats while also adding more positive statements. 

We didn’t get to the gold standard of 5:1 and his score after our process was 3 negative, 4 neutral and 4 positive sentences. Still way better!

He sent it, and we got back to focus on our session goals. And here is the best part: before the session ended he had received a positive reply back from his boss. The relief was palpable.

And now he was struggling to focus because he was so happy!

Challenging relationship are a reality. We all have them. And there are things that we can do to change the quality of our experience as we navigate our challenging relationships.

So the next time you have to send out an important email, take a moment to review each sentence and determine your score. See what you can do to clean up your message and give yourself the best chance of being heard.

What's the difference between Mediation and Toxic Triangulation?

"We are always 100% responsible for our 50% of any relationship." 
Source Unknown
And yet in life, when things are challenging, we often observe how humans focus on the other's 50% while ignoring their own. 
This tendency to deflect responsibility is common in the workplace with employees blaming others while ignoring their own contribution to a problem.
And when they are unable to address their challenge directly themselves, they often turn to third parties-typically those with some power to address the situation in their favor. Their narrative may reveal a victim mentality. Regardless, they want their perspective validated and something done.
If your company has an 'open door policy' employees may go above their supervisors head to address their concerns with someone higher up the chain of command. And from time to time employees do go to HR.
This is where you have to be careful, as there is a thin line between actions that are helpful and those that are not! 
Triangulation occurs when a third person gets involved in the relational dynamics of two others. Toxic triangulation occurs when the third person doesn't restore direct communication, and instead distorts it and either unwittingly or intentionally colludes with the person who complained.
Here's what author's Wilmot and Hooker (on page 226 of their book, Interpersonal Conflict), have this to say about toxic triangulation:

"When people perceive that they are the low-power person in a conflict, their typical response is to try and form a coalition with another person....Three people find it difficult to maintain balance in a conflicted relationship. Usually they become structured as a "dyad plus one. Communication triangles are unstable, leaving one person out."
Ideally, employees who have a functional interdependency, address their issues directly, and find working resolutions themselves. 
When you become the go between for communication and use your influence or positional power to address a challenge on another's behalf, not only do you make it difficult it for yourself, but you support toxic triangulation!
This is what toxic triangulation looks like. B who has less power than A goes to C for support. C takes B's side and communicates with A on behalf of B:
As always, in challenge, lies opportunity!

The potential to take more of a mediative posture arises when we are that third party. You can support direct communication and restore responsibility for decision making to the two involved.

When you do that, and don't take sides, you are effectively mediating. You are equally there for both of them. Instead of contributing toward toxicity, you foster conditions for peace and harmony.
This approach is exactly what the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) expects as per their 2014 competency certification model. Here is a link for those interested in a short summary of the relationship management competency, which expects among other things, that senior HR managers "will mediate difficult employee relations as a neutral party."

April 30, 2015

The Future of Mediation

By John Ford

"If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships - the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace."
Franklin D. Roosevelt

A coach once asked me to predict which way a drop of water would go around a rock up ahead. Of course there is no way of knowing: the water drop may not make it due to evaporation to the atmosphere, absorption by the river bank, and then if it does make it to the rock, whether it goes left or right, over or below. However, even if the future is uncertain, we can still comment on where the drop of water is at the moment.  Even its relationship to our imagined future. And of course about its past.

When did mediation start?

I wonder when the first human chose not to resolve a conflict or dispute of others by telling them the solution but supporting them to find their own. Especially where they had power to impose (make and enforce) a solution. And how many such interventions have been made through the course of human time.

Mediation is both an idea and a process. As an idea it promotes self-responsibility and embraces self-determination. It believes in the ability of humans to take care of their own lives. As a process it has evolved to a point where there are many difference approaches (facilitative, transformative, narrative, party directed, and evaluative) that all use the term mediation to define how the idea is brought to life.

The field of mediation

The idea and process of mediation appear to be enjoying an expansive phase in their history. A self-organized field of mediation has gained self-awareness of the uniqueness of the process and the importance of its role. Some call it a profession. International and regional membership associations for mediators that create voluntary standards of conduct are common.

Debate amongst proponents of different approaches at conferences of professionals who self-identify as mediators is lively. For the most part mediation has been based on intuitive insights of how to resolve conflicts - coupled with reflective practice. More recently we are seeing the emergence of an evidence based or scientific approach to mediation knowledge.

Mediation in contemporary society

Mediation continues to be practiced in many diverse ways around the world both by professional and community members. Mediation has found fertile ground as an idea in many legal systems. The motivation has been varied. Some have advanced more practical social benefits like cost savings while others point to the quality of the decision made in mediation, and more abstract values like self-determination.

The field of mediation has created specializations in a variety of areas such as family, workplace, elder, environmental, commercial and the like. And some professions like HR, realtors, and hospital administrators who routinely find themselves at the intersection of conflict have also started to embrace and internalize the process (skill) of mediation.

Governments of the world are increasingly including mediation as part of the resolution process to address civil right disputes especially in labor, employment and family arenas. Some even provide the mediator’s.

While there is a growing general awareness of mediation, specific awareness of mediation as a valuable or indeed as an applicable option, is low.

World Peace

One way we venture into the future is through vision statements. Like Roosevelt, my vision is world peace. My only question is how long will it take?

Clearly we are not there now, and as result I anticipate that the popularity of mediation as an idea and process will expand and contract cyclically but with a steady incline as we get closer to world peace.

And in my vision, peace is not the absence of conflict. At this point mediation and other collaborative, non-aggressive processes will have become the norm.  The violent and adversarial past will be something people read about and find hard to comprehend!

Humans are getting less violent and yet continue to invest in aggressive and violent approaches to conflict resolution.

Until then

In the more short term I anticipate more scrutiny of the mediation process, especially in the legal context, with developments being more evidence based than intuitive. The courts will be rich learning grounds for insights, in part because the participants will test the limits of competition within a collaborative frame of reference, such that mediation provides.

Where I see the biggest opportunity however, is not in the legal system. I believe that the biggest role mediation has to play, is as a process that is institutionalized within the social fabric of our interactions with one another, not just when we are at the court house steps, but when our differences are first emerging, wherever we happen to be.

The Reality

However, given the current low social awareness of the value or applicability of mediation, education of both end users but also providers will be crucial. I see this as an ongoing challenge. For example, currently in the United States, most HR professionals know about mediation but believe that it is something that other professionals do.

Interestingly, the largest professional membership organization for HR professionals in the world, the Society for Human Resource Management, has established competency standards for certification that expect senior leaders to be able to mediate difficult situations among employees.

As this happens, and similar positive developments take place in schools, businesses, clubs and homes we will seed the slow ongoing improvement in the ability of humans to live together in peace with others. Mediation will continue to have an important role to play.