Conflict solving has many layers

In January I started a mediation training which is specifically aimed at mediation and conflict in workplaces. I'd like to share some of my insights from this training in a series of posts.

Visibility of conflicts

Conflicts in the workplace are most of the time structural and systemic. However, they generally burst out on the individual, personal level, and ultimately on the relational level - making it look like they were individual problems. Often times, when we see a conflict, we only see the tip of the iceberg.

I'll try to very briefly outline ways to look at conflicts.

Layers of conflict solving

When working on a conflict, there are generally three layers involved: the past, the present and the future:

  1. The past. What happened? When something hurtful or unlawful happened in the past, this layer calls for compensation and/or conciliation, i.e. giving back something that was taken, paying a fine, apologizing, or simply that both parties acknowledge the facts — or the hurt — that was caused.
  2. The present. Where are we, the conflicting parties, standing now, where is our center? At this layer we can seek compromise through negotiation, and communication.
  3. The future. How do we want to (not) interact in the future? In order to learn from conflict, the conflicting parties need to engage in a process of transformation.

When you think about a conflict that you solved in the past months or years, to which extent were these three layers involved?

You'll probably come to the conclusion that all of three of them were involved — but not necessarily to the same extent. If compensation/conciliation does not take place, we cannot operate on the layer involving the present and even less so on the layer involving future transformation.

Conflict as process

People generally approach conflict like they would approach a problem with their car: they want to solve it via expert advice. Something is wrong, please repair the problem. "Kim is not happy that we put them on another task with less pay. Let's hire an HR person who can "convince" Kim of the advantages of the new job."

Other times people think that the conflict can only be the fault of one of the people involved in it, and ascribe the person all sorts of bad character traits which could only get softened through relaxation techniques, or fixed through therapy (1). "Toni is so frustrated all the time, they should really learn some positive thinking and do more yoga so they don't bother everyone with their bad mood at work." OR "Jawad has a depression, let's ignore his negativity."

But there is something in between:

PERSON       →        PROBLEM

In between there is a relation, or a process: How do persons relate to problems?

There is no right or wrong in this in-between of person and problem, because this relation is always only subjective: how do I as a person relate to the problem, how do I understand it, where am I standing with regards to this problem? What are my experiences, my triggers, my values, my boundaries?

There are many different ways to deal with this process, only one of them is mediation. In some situations, other possibilities can be more appropriate: for example coaching, supervision, leadership training, legal advice, or even legal measures.


When a conflict in your workplace arises, make sure to ask and research if there could be one or more underlying structural issues that may have led to this conflict.

(1) It is very important to distinguish an actual mental health issue such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, as merely two examples, from behaviours that we dislike in other people. Mental health issues might be at the core of a conflict, or a dysfunctional relation at work. However, diagnosing a person with some kind of mental health issue is most often used as a way to dismiss their criticism, their way of voicing an opinion, or as a way to silence them. Rule of thumb: If you're not their doctor, but have to work with them, please seek external medical — or even legal — advice.