Michelangelo Mediation: A Strategy for Conflict Resolution

How to guide a productive debate among team members.

people debating (productively)
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It is said that when Michelangelo was asked how he sculpted David he said that he chiseled away anything that wasn't David.

That essentially describes my approach when I am called in to mediate or resolve a conflict.

First, I share the following steps with the person who has contacted me to see if they agree to the approach. If they do, then when I arrive at the meeting with the people in conflict, I tell them that, like the statue of David inside a block of marble, I believe there is an agreement or resolution that can be found and I am there to chip away anything that prevents that from occurring.

With that in mind, I explain the process I will use and if they don't agree with it, I elect to not take on that mediation or conflict resolution assignment and suggest they try someone else.

If the parties involved do agree, then it's time to dive in. Here's how you can implement this practice within your own organization.

First, have the parties select three issues or topics that need to be resolved. These are things that are critical to the functioning of the organization, but that can't be discussed without sparking an argument.

When they come up with them, congratulate them on coming to an agreement that those three issues fit the criteria. Then, ask them if they agree that as long as people are talking to or with each other, that all parties are able to listen and consider what each is saying.

Next, ask them if they agree that as soon as one person begins to raise their voice and interrupts or talks over, at or down to others, that listening and considering stops and is replaced by reacting and escalating, which halts progress toward a solution.

Have them select one of the issues or topics they cannot talk about constructively and tell them, "I want all of you to show me and each other the way you need to talk about this, namely by talking to or with each other, to move towards a solution."

At the first sign of someone raising their voice, interrupting, yelling or talking over, at or down to anyone else, call a time out and take that individual aside (or in a breakout room on Zoom) and let everyone else take a fifteen-minute break.

When you're with that individual, ask them what caused them to be so passionate and adamant about their position. Suggest to them that even if their position is correct, they are not communicating in a manner that is going to motivate others to agree. Or, if others do agree, their communication style still creates bad will, and the other parties will likely find some way to undermine the implementation.

In that separate room, you can then ask this person to explain the reason behind their position and why it is fair, reasonable and equitable to all the parties, specifically the other parties in the room. Have them practice making their case by talking to and with the rest of the people before you return to the larger group. Advise them that if the other parties believe that what they're asking for is not fair, reasonable or equitable to everyone it impacts, that they are likely to resist.

If this person tells you that they don't care what the others think, then tell them that when you return to the larger group, you will announce that the only way to resolve this is for everyone to agree with your way and if they cannot do that, then this issue is irresolvable and perhaps the CEO or chairman of the board will need to make a final call.

Finally, tell this individual that if, when they return to the meeting, they begin to raise their voice or talk over, at or down to anyone, you will call for another time out and keep repeating the process.

I developed this approach because I have observed that when conflicted parties attempt to convince you or draw you as a neutral into their position, that they have a propensity to use manipulative tactics that can sometimes challenge the neutrality of a mediator, even when the mediator believes they are being neutral.

As I said at the beginning, like the statue of David inside a block of marble, there really is an agreement to be had, if you eliminate all the counteractive and counterproductive communication from the parties involved.

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