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Dealing with a Workplace Dispute – Before it Starts Affecting the Work

Aanchal Gupta*


When people come together, their experiences, opinions, perceptions and mindsets come together. Every person differs from the other in these regards. A student’s experiences would be different from that of a doctor or from that of a professional athlete’s experiences. These differences lead to disputes. Disputes at a workplace are inevitable as people (who have different opinions) come together to work for the same/one objective/s. These disputes can create a hostile work environment and affect the workflow of the organization. To ensure that this is prevented and a faith is instilled in the dispute resolution mechanism of the organization, certain tools with regards to human behaviour come in handy. Simple tools which can make the disputing parties cognizant of the issue and how it impacts others can lead to them being empathic and hence reaching a mutually agreeable solution.*


When people come together to work on a project or even work in a company, disputes arise as opinions and mindset of every individual differs from one another. It is inherent for a workplace to have disputes. There are several kinds of disputes that can take place such as between employer and employee, co-owners, colleagues, etc. The key to resolving such disputes is to not let them escalate to such a point that it hampers the workflow and the working relationship of the parties involved. When mediating a workplace dispute, few things should be kept in mind both by the parties and the mediator to ensure the session is fruitful. The mediator must always remind the parties that the goal is to reach a mutually acceptable agreement while preserving the working relationship. Even a mediation session can affect the working situation at the workplace for the parties involved and also others who are just witnesses to the dispute. To ensure it does not get out of hand and maybe to ensure that the situation doesn’t arise again, here are few tools that the mediator can use with the disputing parties in a mediation session-

1. “People aren’t against you; they’re just for themselves – A dispute is a hard nut to crack. Tempers and emotions run high and it often takes a toll on the parties involved. They want to bring up their interests and save them as much as possible. While the defend game is on, the other party may feel that they are not included, attacked or even ignored. This may create a cracked line of communication and render the session moot. Parties should be briefed about such a situation in advance by the mediator in an introductory session. They should be reminded that when the other party is talking about their situation and a problem that they are facing, it doesn’t mean that they are against you, it means that they are just looking out for themselves. The mediator can conduct private sessions in the form of caucuses so that the temper and emotions can be kept in check. The parties should also be reminded to take a step back and listen as well as consider the other parties situation. One side can not totally be in the wrong in a conflict or face hardships because of the conflict. It can help the parties to view the dispute with a fresh lens and structure the solution accordingly. The mediator essentially plays the role of a neutral which can bring light to the underlying interests of the parties and how the dispute has affected them. This ensures that the dispute is not escalated and the mediator can calm down the situation so that a mutually acceptable agreement can be arrived at.

 2. Listen for values, not interests – Uncovering values and intentions are often stated as the key to resolving any conflict. Instead of talking about the interests of the disputing parties or what they want, in a session parties should be able to discuss why they want a certain thing. The motivator behind an interest will help you understand the need and also think of several alternative solutions. One or more of them can be mutually agreeable and lead to a solution to resolve the dispute. Instead of discussing one thing that you think is a good solution for your need, discuss the need so that a solution which is mutually acceptable can be carved out hence creating a win-win situation for all of them. The mediator plays a very crucial role in this regard as the neutral can bring out the underlying motivation behind the ask of the parties in a session. The mediator tries to gather information from the disputants by asking them relevant questions so as to bring the essential factors to the table. These can then lead to the parties realising the commonalities between their situation and make it easier for them to come to a mutually acceptable solution. As a neutral who does not have any interest in the dispute, the mediator can be objective and help the disputing parties to understand their core value that they need to protect in the dispute and need to work around.

3. Make it safe – For the parties to resolve or even talk about their dispute, a safe space is a prerequisite. If people from different ranks in the hierarchy are involved in the dispute, a safe space is required so that the consequences of the session are not negatively borne by them. It becomes the duty of the mediator to ensure that the session is confidential and there are no loopholes in terms of harmful consequences in the workplace. Every party involved needs to feel safe and included to be able to take part in the resolution process. If one party is uncomfortable because of the power dynamics, it will prove to be a barrier to an open discussion and even a resolution. A clear agenda, flow of process and ground rules must be formulated before the session to ensure a strong foundation to the session as well as a successful session. The mediator takes charge of these particulars and also ensures that the disputants are made familiar with these before the mediation begins. An introductory session may be conducted by the mediator to ensure that they bring the disputing parties on the same page with regards to the mediation session and its structure. It will also build trust of parties in each other and assure them that the aim is to resolve the conflict by arriving at a mutually acceptable solution creating a win-win situation.

4. Take a break – Haste makes waste. It is important that the dispute is resolved as soon as possible and it doesn’t affect the workflow but sometimes that hurry can cause a problem. It takes a lot of efforts and energy when trying to resolve a dispute so it is important to take a break and cool down during the process. These breaks are essential as they will help high tempers to go down and calmness to take over. The mediator must ensure that they keep a track of where the parties are making progress and where they should take a break to cool down. The dispute might not be solved in just one session, you will have to go through a few sessions to smooth things out and start over in a good working relationship. The mediator must explain the parties how to use the session planning effectively and give space to the parties involved so that they can rest and cool off. Often parties can use this time to sleep over the conversation and offers on the table and also come back with a clearer picture in mind. Breaks have more often than not proven to be a catalyst to dispute resolution. When one session is concluded, the mediator breaks down the session into some particulars to acquaint the parties of their progress and/or their situation before and after the session so that the parties can deliberate and ponder over it and form a clearer picture for the next session. In the next session scheduled by the mediator, the parties have a better understanding of the dispute and the underlying interests while the mediator has a better hold of steering the session to a successful mutually acceptable solution.


These small pointers can prove to be game-changing in a dispute. It helps not only to smoothen the process of actual dispute resolution but it makes the parties more cognizant of the situation at hand and that empathy leads to a better working relationship after the resolution. These simple tools also instill faith of other members into the working of the organization. The members feel more comfortable working in such a place and realize that a dispute will always be handled in a civil and cooperative manner without it turning into a war of sorts. The skills and understanding of the mediator comes in handy here. A skilled mediator who can use these tools effectively can help avoid disputes altogether in the future working of the organisation or help to resolve them quickly, eventually leading to a smooth workflow at the workplace and happier employer and employee relationships

* The author is a fourth- year student at Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur. She can be reached via her LinkedIn ID.

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