Sleepless nights? Knots in your stomach on the way to work? No matter: if you just wait long enough, the conflict with your colleague will go away all by itself. At least, that’s what we usually hope will happen.
It is an understandable approach. Dealing with a conflict feels awkward at first, because most of us have never learned to do that. But it is also a fact that disagreements in the workplace are unavoidable.
For this reason, SAP employees around the world have access to confidential mediation services through the SAP Global Ombuds Office to help them resolve workplace conflicts.
Mediation is when a third party facilitates getting people to talk to each other again, helping clarify the situation when they are no longer able to do so on their own. This approach is particularly useful when the conflicting parties are willing to listen to one another, talk things out, and take ownership for finding a solution.
The Mediation Process at SAP
Participating in mediation is voluntary. At SAP, two mediators guide the conflicting parties through a structured process. The mediators begin by inviting the conflicting parties to share their respective side of the story to try and understand what brought the conflict about.
“We give everyone plenty of space to openly express what their issues are. At the same time, we give structure to the dialogue and see that the conversation remains respectful,” explains Felicia Winkelmann, an expert in conflict resolution who manages the internal mediation service through the SAP Global Ombuds Office.
After that, the mediators support the conflicting parties in entering a dialogue with each other, identifying the most important topics together with the parties and exploring them in greater depth.
Finally, the participants reflect on a possible road map for working together in the future. In some cases, they will reach a mutual agreement that they document in writing. Though guided by the mediators, the conflict parties are responsible for working towards a solution that satisfies their requirements.
Three Approaches to Mediation
1: Four Sides to Every Story
“Our presentation is the day after tomorrow,” your colleague says. You wonder: “Is she trying to tell me I need to prepare better for it? Does she believe I’m not competent enough?” Or you might get a little angry and think: “Oh no, what does she want from me now?” Or maybe you just, “Thanks for the reminder.”
A statement can be understood in very different ways, depending on who says it to whom in which situation, as communication psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun explains in his “four sides of a message” model. In other words, you will interpret a message very differently depending on your relationship with the speaker, what experiences you’ve had together, if you are particularly sensitive to the topic in question, and so on.
“How you say something or hear something, and what is actually understood by the other person can differ so greatly among different people that it can lead to conflict,” says Winkelmann. That is where mediation can be a powerful resource.
2: Beware the Iceberg
When Winkelmann asks conflicting parties what they expect from each other, they very often talk about “professional behavior,” she reports. “When I then ask them what exactly they mean by this, they always mention data, facts, and figures. But if communication was just about data, facts, and figures, we wouldn’t have a conflict to begin with.”
The iceberg model illustrates what many studies have shown: only 20% of communication happens at the factual level compared to 80% at the relationship level, where our emotions, feelings, needs, values, and moods are seated.
“If there’s tension at the factual level, you can safely assume that someone feels attacked at the relationship level, and that’s when the conflict arises.”
This can be the case, for example, if a person feels their performance is not being recognized or appreciated. Or they are angry or frustrated because they feel micromanaged rather than being able to work autonomously. Or vice versa: someone might be longing for more support and backing from their team instead of feeling like a lone warrior.
For many mediation participants, it is a breakthrough moment when they realize that much of our communication takes place subconsciously and is not expressed directly through words, data, or facts. “When I start my working day in the office or online, I can’t just turn off my emotions at the flip of a switch. They are a part of us, and the reason why things touch or hurt us,” explains Winkelmann. “That’s why it’s so important that we talk to each other in mediation and see each other in a holistic way.”
3: Change of Perspective
In conflict situations it is also typical at first for everyone to think that the other is to blame for the problem. By extension, this also implies that the other person must change for there to be a solution.
At this point, it can be helpful to walk in the other person’s shoes for a moment. In a heated conflict, this is far from easy. By now, you’ve often built up so much internal resistance against the other person that you do not wish to walk in their shoes. That is where the mediators come into play, asking targeted questions to help the conflicting parties look at the situation from the other person’s point of view.
“It’s amazing what a change of perspective can do,” Winkelmann says. “In one of my recent mediations, we looked at the situation from a bird’s eye view — as if from the perspective of an uninvolved third party. One of the participants was suddenly able to see what was causing the conflict and how both parties had contributed to it. That was wonderful to experience.”
Just knowing that the other person is making an honest effort to understand can be quite reassuring for many. “Changing your perspective helps you see yourself in the conflict, and perhaps even build a bridge between the two sides. That’s why this method is so powerful.”
Does It Always End in Peace and Harmony?
Mediation is an open-ended process by design.
It is entirely possible that the conflicting parties reach an agreement and get along again. But that doesn’t always happen. It is already a huge win if they begin to understand each other better. “For me, in an ideal world, the conflicting parties would appreciate and accept their differences and be able work together again on that basis,” Winkelmann says.
Sometimes, however, they recognize during the process that it is simply not possible to work together in the long term. “It still makes sense in that case to talk about this as part of the mediation and try to find a good way out of the situation together.”
Mediation is a strictly confidential process. No one except the participants and the mediators are privy to it. The mediators are bound to confidentiality and will not talk about the mediation with anyone, including people managers or the HR department. The SAP Global Ombuds Office, on whose behalf the mediators act, is a neutral, independent body and does not disclose any information about mediations to third parties.
The participants themselves, however, may agree to share information on their agreement with others, such as their manager, friends, or family members.
When is the right time for mediation? “As soon as employees feel uncomfortable and don’t know how to deal with the conflict, or they’re having a hard time continuing to work with the person,” says Winkelmann. “The sooner, the better.”