How to Avoid Making a Difficult Conversation Worse: Tips From a Professional Mediator

Thursday 12 September 2019
David Liddle, author of managing conflict: a practical guide to resolution in the workplace, shares advice on de-escalating conflict – and moving workplace issues from dysfunctional to functional

In an ideal scenario, mediation would be conducted by highly trained, highly qualified professionals. In reality, managing conflict in this way isn’t always possible – and managers on the ground need to have a toolkit of skills and strategies so that they can nip issues in the bud, before they get out of control.

In order to manage conflict at work successfully, it’s important to have a good understanding of why conflict arises and to know the difference between functional and dysfunctional conflict. Functional conflict is where team members are engaging in healthy debate to get to the best outcome – dysfunctional conflict is insidious, subtle and if left unchecked, can soon turn into bullying, harassment and discrimination.

When some kind of workplace dispute escalates, the typical response is to reach for the company’s grievance procedure and try and resolve the situation via a formal route. The problem, however, is that these traditional approaches are adversarial, divisive and destructive, and can often do more harm than good.

The ability to spot the signs of conflict arising early and to nip it in the bud is key. Ignoring conflict in the hope it will go away is the worst possible approach. Early intervention will stop minor disagreements escalating into all-out war.

Make It Voluntary

People need to enter into a mediation process freely and voluntarily. They can’t be forced or coerced. Both parties need to want to enter mediation, and even if they have low expectations, they have to want to try and sort it out between themselves.

At TCM, we use the FAIR™ mediation model, which helps parties transform their conflicts from dysfunctional to functional. FAIR stands for Facilitate, Appreciate, Innovate, Resolve.


The mediator’s role is to create a safe space where it is easier for the parties to talk and listen to each other. Prepare the parties to fully meet each other and help the individuals focus on their underlying needs and goals, rather than the relative merits of their adopted positions. Develop a set of ground rules that the parties sign up to for the face-to-face meetings.


The mediator encourages the parties to look at the world through the other person’s eyes and to appreciate what they have experienced, what they may be feeling and what they may need. This is about building empathy and having adult-to-adult interactions.


This is about creating a new relationship and a new range of behaviours. If someone hasn’t said good morning to you for two years, crafting an agreement where the other party will acknowledge you in the morning is an incredibly liberating experience.


Resolve has two different but aligned meanings. The first is that the conflict is resolved. It has shifted from dysfunctional to functional and the parties have agreed steps to prevent it reverting back. The second meaning is that the parties will have greater commitment to the agreement as it is forged by their own hands. The agreement in mediation is not imposed by the mediator or anyone else. It belongs to the parties involved.

At the end of the mediation, the parties will hopefully have reached a resolution to the dispute, including a number of points of agreement, which should be typed up and given to them.

Ongoing support is also important. Contact all parties at one, three, six and 12 months after mediation to check in and evaluate progress.

Read more on how you can resolve workplace conflict here, as told by a professional mediator.

David Liddle

David Liddle

is founder and CEO of the TCM Group.