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How to Mediate a Dispute

Keep the peace: how to cool down a burning situation.

Conflicts are inevitable. While most can be resolved between participants, sometimes a third party is needed to keep the peace. Effectively refereeing disputes means more than just being neutral and hearing both sides. PT asked professional mediators Tim Flanagan and Craig Runde, co-authors of Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader , for advice.

  • Don't play detective. Digging around will likely compromise your objectivity. Let both parties share their perceptions and desires in front of each other.
  • Set ground rules. Start the meeting by laying down two rules: no bullying and no walk-aways until the conflict moves. When one party won't budge, remind him or her of the rules.
  • Use nonverbal cues. Nodding your head can help each side feel validated; just don't make it appear that you're agreeing. Avoid pointing or other antagonistic moves. When someone directs comments at you, look toward the other party to encourage two-way communication.
  • Break new ground. "Finding common ground between both parties is important, but it can be better to find new ground," Flanagan says. In other words, Sally may want X and Joe may want Y, but the best solution may be Z.