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3 steps to mediate a team conflict

Aug. 15, 2023
Don't let toxic teammates bring you down—there's a fair, objective process to facilitate a conversation between two team members who are at odds that can help everyone go about their day peacefully.

Imagine you’re with a patient and things are going smoothly. Suddenly you hear raised voices, the slam of a hand hitting a desk, and someone shouting, “I can’t believe you just said that! Who do you think you are?” Is this an angry patient? Nope. It’s two of your team members and with a sinking feeling, you know what comes next. You’ll have to mediate a conflict.

Conflicts are very common when two or more people are together (and sadly, even when you’re by yourself!). The good news is that there is a fair, objective process to facilitate a conversation between two team members who are at odds. This model encourages each person to listen, take responsibility, and develop their own agreement. I’ve taught versions of this process to elementary school children, so I’m confident that you’ll be able to do this, too.

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The three-step mediation process

Step one: Establish ground rules

Ask both people to agree to general ground rules for the mediation. These rules are designed to create parity, ensure respectful communication, and develop accountability. Request that each person verbally commit to these rules and add any other rules of their own to foster a sense of safety.

Sample ground rules

  • Speak for yourself (not “we” or “everyone” thinks).
  • Avoid words such as “always” or “never.” Focus on this situation.
  • Acknowledge your contribution to the situation rather than focusing on blame.
  • Describe your feelings and how your feelings may have influenced your behavior.
  • Listen as openly and without judgment as possible.

Step two: Describe the process

Your employees will naturally feel anxious, so in this step, you’ll discuss the model:

  1. Each person will describe in one sentence their desired goal for this conversation.
  2. Each person will share what happened from their point of view, while the other listens and restates what they heard.
  3. Each person can then ask clarifying questions of the other party.
  4. Each person will acknowledge their contribution to the situation and commit to a new behavior so that this situation doesn’t recur.

Step three: The mediation process

Here are steps for the mediator:

  1. Share the ground rules and ask if they want to add any.
  2. Ask each person to state their goal for the mediation: What would be the best possible outcome for this conversation? What is the relationship that each person wants to have with the other?
  3. Choose the more emotional person (Person A) to share what happened from their point of view. Intervene if Person A becomes blameful or judgmental or makes assumptions. Ask them to rephrase their statements until they are a neutral and nonjudgmental description of what happened.
  4. Ask Person B to restate what they heard Person A say, again using neutral terms. This may be difficult for Person B, so intervene if their description is clouded by their opinions or judgments. Person B does not have to agree with what they heard; their job is simply to restate what Person A said.
  5. When Person B has completed their restatement, ask Person A to affirm if this restatement is accurate. Continue the refinement process until Person A agrees that Person B has accurately understood their point of view.
  6. Invite Person B to share their side of the story.
  7. Ask Person A to restate what they heard until Person B agrees it’s accurate.
  8. Invite either to ask clarifying questions of the other or to share new insights about what happened and why.
  9. When they seem ready, move to the agreement step. Since it’s likely that each person contributed to the situation, ask Person A what they will do differently so this situation doesn’t happen again. Then ask what they would like from Person B. Ask Person B to do the same until they reach an agreement for the future.
    Each side makes a commitment to change their own behavior—not just demand the other do something different.
  10. Finally, ask each person to write down their commitments so their agreement is codified as a contract.

If your colleagues are emotional or blameful, it may take a while for them to adapt their communication until it complies with this model. But ultimately, it will provide good training on how to present information in a productive way without blame and shame. You can also teach this model to your team so they can act as mediators for one another—or even better, resolve their conflicts by themselves without a third-party facilitator.

If you need some guidance or help practicing this model, contact me and I’ll walk you through it.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the August 2023 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

About the Author

Sharyn Weiss, MA

Sharyn Weiss, MA, is the CEO at Weiss Practice Enhancement, a Bay Area practice management firm serving dentists nationwide. She has worked with hundreds of dentists during the last 20 years with a focus on patient and team motivation. Her mission is to help dentists become confident leaders of a profitable practice. If that’s your goal too, contact Weiss at [email protected] or weisspractice.com.

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