Rob Cairns - Conflict Resolution

My Approach to Conflict
Resolution and Mediation

My approach to mediation and conflict resolution is based on 2 major philosophical underpinnings, both of which are described below.

The Developmental or Transformational Approach to Conflict Resolution

The first philosophical approach utilized in my work as a mediator is called the developmental or transformational approach. This approach to mediation takes into consideration that people have varying levels of personal development, which determine their perceptions of the world including how conflict can or should be resolved.

As a mediator, then, it is important that I first acquire an understanding of the conflict from each party’s point of view. I then assist the parties involved in the dispute to consider each other’s needs both in terms of the nature of the conflict and also in terms of how the conflict will be resolved.

This process is key to resolving conflict successfully. Without being able to see the issue from one another’s perspectives, each individual may be inclined to resolve the conflict in a way that meets only their own needs, without taking into consideration the other person’s needs. When this happens, resolution becomes much more difficult, if not impossible.

Mediation conducted through the transformational lens results in a much more positive result. The transformative approach encourages both parties to understand one another’s underlying needs that have led to the conflict and work towards developing a solution that meets those needs. This is in contrast to the more traditional or transactional approach to mediation whereby the focus is simply on reaching an agreement between the parties, which may, or may not meet each person’s universal human needs. Without considering the needs of each party, a simple agreement is often only a temporary solution, and there is a danger of the problem resurfacing or even escalating.

The transformative approach on the other hand, leads to a deeper understanding and resolution of the problem and therefore avoids this danger of potential conflict escalation. More creativity and flexibility is possible in solving the dispute and a more harmonious outcome is achieved.

In the end, the parties develop a deeper trust and appreciation for one another. They are more likely to avoid conflict in the future, and if a conflict does arise, they will have a stronger foundation for solving it more quickly and easily.

The ultimate goal of the transformative approach to mediation is to challenge people to grow and to become more compassionate and cooperative with one another, to take greater responsibility for their own feelings and needs, and to find solutions that meet everyone’s needs. They become more open to varying viewpoints and more willing and able to listen to those viewpoints. In the long term, this is critical to a healthy and productive workplace.

The Non-Violent Approach to Communication as Applied to Mediation

The second philosophical approach that influences my work as a mediator is based on the Non-violent Communication (NVC) model as described by Marshall B. Rosenberg in his book, Nonviolent Communication. As Rosenberg notes, when we use the NVC approach in our social interactions we are naturally more compassionate towards ourselves and others. Having this compassion allows the parties to resolve a conflict much more easily.

The 4 components to NVC are outlined below:

1. Observation

The first step of NVC is to separate our evaluations and judgments from observations of the facts at hand. This is difficult for many, because in our culture we are conditioned to believe that our evaluations are factual observations. When people evaluate and judge what is happening for another person, the receiver is likely to feel hurt and defensive and will reject what the sender is saying. This is not only the source of much conflict in the workplace, but is often a key obstacle to resolving disputes.

Through the mediation process, I encourage people to distinguish between their evaluations/judgments and their observations. For example, an employee may say to a colleague, “I wish you would stop being so selfish and show up for team meetings on time.” This is an evaluative statement, which is likely to put the receiver on the defensive thus creating or escalating a conflict. By contrast, an example of an observation statement would be, “I feel frustrated when you show up for team meetings after our agreed start time. We can’t start until you are here as you are the designated facilitator.” Through the mediation process, I help the parties re-frame their evaluative statements as observations thus de-escalating the conflict and helping them listen to and understand one another more deeply.

2. Identifying and Expressing Feelings

The second component of non-violent communication as applied to the mediation process is identifying and expressing feelings. When the parties make an observation of the other person’s behavior, I help them identify and express their feelings about the behavior they observed. Again, this is challenging for many, as our culture does not teach or encourage the expression of feelings.

Instead, many people express their thoughts when asked to express their feelings. For example, when an employee says to a supervisor or manager, “I feel like you are treating me unfairly” she is actually expressing a thought: her judgment of the situation as being unfair. A more accurate expression of her feelings might be, “I feel hurt and discouraged when you give all of the more interesting work to Jane.” In this statement, the employee is not expressing her evaluation or judgment of the situation, she is simply expressing the way she feels when observing the behaviour. This is an important first step toward identifying her underlying needs.

Helping people articulate their feelings in the mediation process allows them to appreciate one another’s point of view more fully and connect with each other on a much deeper level. This is critical to successful, long-lasting conflict resolution.

3. Awareness of the Underlying Needs That Pertain to the Conflict

The third component of the NVC model that I apply to the mediation process is helping the parties to identify and express the needs connected to the feelings expressed. This component involves helping employees take responsibility for their feelings, as opposed to blaming the other party for causing them by acknowledging that their feelings result from their own needs which are, or are not being met in the situation.

Employees come to acknowledge that another’s behavior may be the stimulus for their feelings, but not the cause. This viewpoint helps the parties recognize that their feelings result from how they have chosen to receive what the other party has said and done. In addition, they are helped to see that feelings also arise from their needs in the particular moment. These needs can often be met in many more ways than have been considered prior to the conflict.

Examples of Rosenberg’s universal human needs that underpin many conflict situations in the workplace:

During a mediation process I use empathy to help the parties in dispute articulate their needs along with their feelings. For example, if I saw that John appeared to have a need for autonomy I might say something like, “John, it seems like you have a need to work on your part of the project without Frank interrupting you to give suggestions after you have already agreed on the manner in which it was to be completed. When he interrupts you, you lose your concentration and then feel angry, is that right?”

Stated in this way, John is encouraged to take responsibility for his needs that underlie his feelings of anger. This makes it much easier for Frank to hear and understand John’s point of view without taking it personally. He may then be more open to agreeing to a solution to the conflict that takes John’s needs into consideration.

4. Making Requests as Opposed to Demands

After the parties in dispute state their observations and express their feelings and needs, I help them make requests of each other that will allow these needs to be met. Requests are made with the understanding that the other person is free to say no to the request.

Demands, on the other hand, are expressed in a manner that does not give the person the option of saying no. Demands tend to put people on the defensive, making them more likely to resist complying and often make conflicts worse. Requests are more respectful and less threatening than demands and are therefore more likely to be received positively and constructively.

Even if one party rejects the request of the other, the mediation can continue with this quality of respect and cooperation. Other options can then be considered until a solution is found that is acceptable to both parties.

An example of a request might be, “Would you be willing to speak more softly when we talk on the phone?”

The overall benefit of the NVC approach used in mediation extends beyond the conflict situation; it aims to strengthen the connection of the relationship. As in the transformative approach to conflict resolution described above, this perspective ultimately establishes trust in relationships. This deeper understanding of one another will, if not eliminate conflict completely, at least allow a much easier and efficient resolution of any future conflict.

Visit my conflict resolution services page to find out more about my services—or if you are ready to get started, contact me.

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Rob Cairns provides conflict resolution services including mediation, conflict resolution training, team building, workplace assessments, coaching, and harassment investigations in the Vancouver, BC area.

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Unless the underlying emotional issues are addressed, structural changes and agreements will not provide a lasting resolution. In his book "Sitting in the Fire", Arnold Mindell describes this process as burning your wood.

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