The importance of resolving workplace conflict

Restoring healthy working relationships

Conflict is a normal part of human relationships and is certainly common in the workplace. Employees who find themselves embroiled in workplace conflict tend to suffer more than most people realize. Disputes can take a toll on mental health, can affect things like sleep and eating habits, and the effects can spill over into their home life. Furthermore, it makes individuals vulnerable to engaging in unprofessional behaviour and may attract the attention of management. OSSTF/FEESO created the Mediation Services Resource Bank (MSRB) to assist members who find themselves stuck in workplace conflict.

I am the vice-chair of the MSRB, a group of twelve OSSTF/FEESO members from different job classes across the province. We are frontline members working in a variety of education settings who volunteer to support our colleagues in finding solutions to conflicts and restoring healthy working relationships. The MSRB assists over a hundred members a year to settle their differences and return to amicable professional relationships. It has a very high success rate in working with members experiencing one-on-one conflicts as well as those in large groups.

The MSRB was created almost 25 years ago when OSSTF/FEESO realized that their members mired in workplace conflict were vulnerable to employer discipline and dismissal. The program finds members from a variety of experiences and backgrounds, provides them with intensive training in current conflict resolution theory and training, and then sends them out to assist members in addressing their workplace conflicts. As far as we know, we are the only union in North America that provides this service.

If a member finds themselves in a conflict with one or more colleagues, they can speak to their worksite union rep or call their local District office to discuss the issues and find out if a referral for mediation might be helpful. Mediation services are available in English and French, to both small and large groups of OSSTF/FEESO members, and the service is always free and confidential.

I cannot overemphasize the significant negative impact that workplace conflict can have on both the individuals directly involved and on the workplace community. We have heard stories of members sitting in their cars before work, dreading walking into their building. Others have experienced so much trauma that they have been unable to work or even voluntarily transferred work locations to escape conflict. Well-meaning colleagues often find themselves involved and taking sides as they seek to support a friend, and sometimes an entire staff may find themselves split over what was originally a disagreement between two colleagues. Our mediators are able to identify the key players in a dispute, provide them with a safe place to deal with their conflict, and guide them through the conversation.

Going into mediation may sound intimidating or provoke feelings of anxiety, but this is normal. It is important to know that mediation offered through the MSRB is completely confidential and no records are kept. Our only goal is to support members to better understand each other’s perspectives and to identify proven strategies that can be used to resolve the conflict and then move forward to rebuild healthy working relationships.

Once a referral for mediation has been received, it is reviewed by the chair of the MSRB and then assigned to one of the twelve mediators. When I am assigned a mediation, my first step is to connect with each of the people involved and have a private phone conversation to understand their perspective of the conflict, explain the mediation process, and learn their hopes for the outcome of mediation. A mediation will only go ahead if all of the members are willing to engage in conversation, hear the other’s perspectives, and work toward solutions. Mediation involves difficult conversations that often have a lot of emotion behind them, and my primary role is to ensure there is a safe space for a respectful dialogue. If there is any indication that a member is not motivated to work toward resolution in a genuine and considerate way, the mediation would not go ahead.

On the day of the mediation, we meet in a neutral location such as the District office or a meeting room at a hotel. We begin by establishing ground rules that will guide the process. Next, each person recounts their perception of the conflict without being interrupted, sharing the impact the conflict has had on them and the intentions behind their actions. Mediators are trained to identify common interests through asking questions and reframing issues. Often people in conflict are working toward the same goal but in different ways. Mediators do not impose solutions; we are skilled at facilitating conversations and synthesizing information in a way that helps members identify their relationship goals and the strategies they want to use to move forward.

When people are in conflict, they are often stuck at a surface level of a particular event or series of interactions. They make assumptions about the intentions behind the other person’s actions while expecting the other person to understand their own. Mediation provides the opportunity for both sides to discuss specific situations and understand the reasons behind each other’s actions.

Let me share a personal example that helps to illustrate this concept. A few years ago, my partner and I were heading out to a nearby gym, and I was in a rush to get there. He scraped the snow off the windshield of the car, but did not do a great job. I interpreted this as him being lazy and rushing, not caring about me. When I asked him about it, he shared that his intention was to do a good enough job and be quick so we could get there sooner. He had noticed that I was rushing and he was trying to help. Suddenly this action that I had perceived as inconsiderate changed and I was able to see that he was motivated by caring and trying to help me. The situation diffused from one of conflict to one of connection. Although this example is of a simple conflict, it illustrates how our interpretation of people’s intentions based on their actions can be wrong. Mediation helps us understand the thought processes that underlie another’s behaviour. Understanding is more important than being right and proving another wrong; it diffuses hard feelings and opens a path to finding solutions.

In short, the process of mediation involves sharing perspectives, framing issues, understanding each person’s interests, brainstorming solutions, and selecting options that are feasible to implement and can be durable over time. After the mediation is complete, all notes are shredded and the only information that goes to OSSTF/FEESO is a note indicating that the mediation was completed. There is no further contact between the members and the mediator. It is up to the members to collaborate to implement the solutions they created. Should the conflict resurface, a second mediation may be appropriate.

Mediation involves difficult conversations that take effort and energy. The days leading up to mediation can feel stressful. However, mediation is a good investment because long-term conflict is even more stressful and can lead to negative repercussions that have the possibility to impact members’ careers. OSSTF/FEESO’s mediators create safe spaces and facilitate healthy and respectful discussions to resolve these conflicts and re-establish professional working relationships. If you find yourself in a conflict, consider asking your union rep if mediation might be appropriate.

About Kate Davidson
Kate Davidson is a Psychological Associate, former president of District 19, Peel PSSP, and is currently working for the Waterloo Region District School Board and is now a member of District 24, Waterloo PSSP. She is the vice-chair of MSRB and a long-time mediator on MSRB.

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