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Acting as a Mediator in the Workplace

How to Avoid Being Caught in the Middle

When people argue, and you are a bystander, it is tempting to wade in and act as a mediator to calm things down. But beware — the person in the middle often gets hurt the most.

In many workplaces, mediation is an official role. A mediator has the power to insist upon a compromise. But placing yourself in the middle of warring colleagues is different. It involves acting as an unofficial mediator.

Drawbacks of unofficial mediation

Unofficial mediators try to find the middle ground between two parties and encourage them to communicate and reach a resolution themselves. However, unofficial mediators are powerless. 

You have no powers to bring the sides together or to insist upon a compromise. And if you fail, the blame for the entire dispute will often fall on you.

There are good reasons for not being caught in the middle of two fighting parties. But sometimes your colleagues can be very persuasive, calling on your loyalties or friendships. So you need to develop ways to avoid the situation.

There are three effective techniques to help you.

1. Referral — refer the conflict to an official mediator in the organization. This will usually be someone who has the authority to enforce a solution.

2. Choose a side — review the arguments, and declare your interests; then you cannot mediate. This will, of course, bring its own set of problems. But in certain instances, for example, when the argument is trivial, it is a less dangerous course of action.

3. Reason — offer a rational and detailed analysis of the problem, and emphasize the distance between the two sides. The longer and more pessimistic the analysis, the better, since a negative approach shows that you cannot provide a way forward. And if you cannot find a solution, the parties will not want you to mediate.

Trying to avoid acting as an unofficial mediator is a delicate operation. You must first engage with the parties to inform them or convince them that you are not going to take on the role, and then withdraw. 

You must handle this engagement sensitively to prevent it escalating into anger or blame. You should apply the following guidelines:

How to refer — to pass the argument on to an official mediator, convince the warring parties that they need to involve someone who can enforce a decision — and that you will be able to do little for them. Always explain what you are going to do and why.

Remember that referral needs to be handled sensitively. Do not just go over the heads of your colleagues. Ask the advice of the authority figure, but do not force the issue.

How to choose a side — Declaring an interest in the argument is risky, so do it early in the process. You use this tactic for trivial arguments, but you should explain that you have a reason for your choice — perhaps one idea has slightly more merit.

How to reason — detailing the merits of each argument is close to acting as an unofficial mediator, so do not encourage the parties to explain their arguments. Instead, focus on the fact that the sides are so far apart that you cannot solve the problem.

No matter how well you handle it, declining to act as a mediator may make you unpopular at times. Dealing with conflict is never easy, but at least you will gain your colleagues’ respect, even if you do not give them what they want.