The University Record, December 18, 2000

Mediators aid workplace communication

By Britt Halvorson

Consultation and Conciliation staff (from left) Sally Johnson, Claire Tinkerhess and Susan Hartman are available to meet with faculty and staff who wish to air concerns regarding a workplace issue or dispute. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
In a workplace characterized by conflict, it is often difficult for those involved to separate feelings from fact. Each individual may feel that others do not understand his or her perspective; communication breaks down and bad feelings can escalate, creating a tense work environment.

Before personal feelings blur the real issues involved, it often is wise to engage the services of a neutral, third party. The University’s Consultation and Conciliation Services (C&C) provides just that.

A unit within Human Resources and Affirmative Action (HR/AA), C&C offers mediation and other alternative dispute resolution services. The department recently hired two part-time, professionally trained mediators to fill one full-time position. This “two-for-one” deal was very appealing in the hiring process, according to C&C Director Sally Johnson, because the department is expanding its programs.

“We were thrilled that this level of experience and insight was available,” Johnson says. Mediators Claire Tinkerhess and Susan Hartman will handle the bulk of the department’s mediating while Johnson focuses on program development. Beginning in winter term, Tinkerhess and Hartman will give brown-bag presentations on conflict resolution to any interested University unit.

C&C has organized an e-mail network of students, faculty and staff who are involved in conflict resolution and prevention. Johnson says she hopes this will lead eventually to close partnerships with such campus units as the University Ombud, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, HR/AA, the faculty ombuds program, and others whose work involves resolving conflicts. The conflict resolution network, collaboration with other dispute resolution programs, such as those at the School of Dentistry and University Hospitals, and informative materials and presentations are part of the department’s expanding services. A name change, possibly to “Mediation Services,” also is on the horizon, according to Johnson.

The addition of Tinkerhess and Hartman to C&C’s staff solidifies its focus on mediation and consultation. Both bring years of experience as professional mediators to their position and work together in private practice when they are not at the University.

Hartman is a lawyer who practiced law for 20 years before focusing on mediation. Her experience as a mediator in southeast Michigan includes work at the Center for Social Gerontology, the Dispute Resolution Center of Washtenaw County and the U.S. Postal Service.

In their private practice, Hartman and Tinkerhess offer conflict resolution training, and victim/offender and family mediation, and work with the Postal Service Redress program.

Tinkerhess, like Hartman, has experience as a mediator at the Dispute Resolution Center of Washtenaw County. Because she enjoyed the mediation work she began there seven years ago, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in conflict resolution. Having worked independently in private practice since she completed her degree, Tinkerhess says that the University position suits her interest in workplace mediation.

A phone call to C&C can put an individual in contact with one of the department’s mediators. All three are available to meet privately with faculty and staff who wish to air their concerns about a work-related issue or dispute involving a co-worker, supervisor or employee.

People can call for suggestions and an impartial listening ear, or they can begin the mediation process. Several aspects of consultation and conciliation make them appealing alternatives to more formal complaint processes.

  • C&C maintains strict confidentiality on behalf of its clients. No action is taken unless the client has agreed that it would be useful. The policy is only broken when individual safety is threatened. In a mediation, the parties also must commit to respect each other’s confidentiality.

  • Consultants do not judge disputes nor interpret them from the point of University policy. They listen to individuals’ concerns and offer suggestions on how to deal with conflict and talk to other people involved with a dispute.

  • Each part of the mediation process is voluntary. Based on the instigating party’s wishes, the mediator will contact the other party involved to set up a meeting on campus or off-site. The consultant usually talks with the other party prior to the meeting. The mediation session is scheduled only if both parties consent.

  • The mediator does not make a “ruling” or decide who is “right” or “wrong.” “We try to ask each person to tell some things to the other that were told to us individually,” Hartman notes. As a mediator, Hartman says she tries to flesh out the differences between people’s interests and positions. Vocalizing one’s underlying interests will lead to conflict resolution faster than restating a position that seems inflexible. The mediator helps the parties communicate and, if necessary, brainstorms different problem solutions with them.

  • A written agreement is usually signed by all involved parties, laying out the terms of the dispute resolution. However, C&C does not enforce the agreement in any way. The parties involved are responsible for maintaining each part of the agreement. “Putting it in a written form helps to make the terms clear,” Tinkerhess says.

    The mediation process focuses on creating a better workplace—it is not always necessary to reach a settlement. Sometimes the key, Hartman comments, is to ask questions that make employees and supervisors understand each other better.

    To reach Consultation and Conciliation Services, call (734) 936-4214 or visit the Web at Requests may be made for winter term brown-bag presentations on conflict resolution.

    Tips for handling workplace conflict

    Consultation and Conciliation’s Sally Johnson, Claire Tinkerhess and Susan Hartman offer the following suggestions for handling workplace conflict.

  • Be aware of your personal style of responding to conflict and be open to varying it depending on the situation. Don’t just react.

  • Gauge the appropriate time and place to engage another person in a conversation about a conflict.

  • Listen with the intent of understanding the other person’s perspective. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

  • Express your feelings and needs in the situation.

  • Search for “win-win” options to resolve the situation.

  • Engage the services of a mediator, who will be able to hear the problems differently. “It’s not a failure to need a third party,” Tinkerhess emphasizes.

    Campus Web resources

  • Consultation and Conciliation Services,

  • Program on Intergroup Relations, Conflict and Community,

  • Student Mediation Services,

  • Office of Student Conflict Resolution,

  • U-M Ombuds Office,