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"Conflict resolution skills improve an organisation's culture."

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Published on Monday, 20 September 2021

Better conflict management is key to reaching a healthy and balanced workplace where everyone feels empowered to do the best they can. In this interview, Dr. Brent Epperson, the University’s Ombudsman, explains what particular techniques he applies in his work for helping individuals and groups to resolve conflicts. He outlines the ways in which improving one’s conflict management skills can actually lead to self-empowerment.

Brent, how do you help resolve the conflict in the workplace or in the classroom?

There are four main methods that we can use for conflict management. The first method and my preferred one is conflict resolution coaching—sometimes simply called conflict coaching. In this results-oriented approach, the visitor describes the conflict, I listen actively in a supportive environment, and after a thorough analysis I coach the visitor on ways to make the professional relationship better with the third party. Conflict coaching focuses on moving someone from where they are in their working relationships to where they want to be. The process emphasizes development of self-awareness and accountability. As the expression goes “Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.” The same goes with learning how to manage conflict in the workplace. If you spend some time working with someone to develop conflict resolution skills, that's something that they're going to benefit from for their entire career, whether they're a student or an employee, whatever stage they're at, it's something that will be useful going forward.

In my view if you help people develop better conflict resolution skills, it can help change the culture of any organisation.

What if the conflict resolution coaching is not always possible?

Based on the details of the particular case I might suggest one of the three methods. The first one is mediation. With the permission of the visitor, I approach the other party and organise intake and pre-meditation with each person involved in the conflict separately to get everyone’s perspective and gather views on how they perceive the situation what they’d like to see as a resolution. It’s a completely voluntary process and all parties can decline the opportunity for mediation. If I determine that every party is a willing participant who understands the process, and genuinely wants to find a solution, without resorting to formal procedures, then the mediation can start. At the end, if it's successful, we have a mediated agreement that all parties have agreed to respect. A mediated agreement should be a solid foundation for them to work with going forward.

How do you deal with situations in which people have very negative feelings at the beginning of the process?

You’re right, that sometimes happens. Simply put: there may be situations where people aren’t comfortable to try to solve the problem while being in the same room together. In this case, shuttle diplomacy might be the answer. It is a method in which the Ombudsman will serve as a negotiator between two parties in the conflict, speaking to each party separately. The ultimate goal is the same as during a mediation, we want to try and come to an agreement between the parties so they can work together on a better foundation going forward.

Finally, the last method we often use is broadly called restorative practices. One of the most common ones would be a restorative circle. That's often useful in groups and teams where people feel they have been harmed by the behaviour of someone or more than one person within the working group. During a meeting, the Ombudsman acts as a facilitator for discussion between all parties in the conflict and manages the discussion so that everyone can speak up about the issues they have experienced.

The key to being able to help our employees and students is to make sure that they actually come to see you with their issues. What would you say to someone who is afraid to knock on your door?

For a new ombudsman, there's always a period of trying to increase community knowledge, making sure people are aware that the Ombudsman is available to help them. Throughout this year, I'll be doing a lot of presentations on campus to different audiences so everybody understands the added value of an Ombudsman.

But it's also as you said, making sure people feel comfortable to come. And to that, I would say, remember the ethical principles that govern the Ombudsman office: it's a confidential, impartial, independent and accessible service(hyperlinked to Interview 1). Everyone should know that anything they bring to my attention, unless there's a threat of harm to self to others, or unless they make a written request to me to share or clarify information, will remain between us.


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