I once saw a flight attendant defuse a quarrel between two passengers. She did it calmly, assuredly, and quickly. I couldn’t hear what she said but I could see the result – the two passengers seemed to make peace with each other.
Given the tenor of our times, the ability to make peace between two people (or two organizations) may well become a very valuable skill. It’s also a teachable skill. Here are the tips I’ve picked up in researching the topic.
Take a step back and a deep breath – you’ll want to slow things down and derail the rush to judgment. It’s likely that both parties are thinking in System 1 (and only System 1). You need to help them activate System 2 – that’s where the quarrel can be resolved. Ask both parties to think consciously about what’s going on. Asking each person to literally take a step backward can be a good starting point – it activates embodied cognition.
Clarify their intentions – saying, “I assume that both of you want to settle this amicably…” can help you clarify their intentions. It also activates their System 2 – they have to think about what they want. It can also help you identify obstacles to an amicable agreement.
Back away from the conclusion – System 1 is very good at taking partial information and jumping to a conclusion, often erroneously. Ask each person to describe the situation in his own words. Don’t interrupt and don’t allow the other person to interrupt. Then ask, “What do you conclude from this?” and “Do you think that’s a fair conclusion?” “Why?”
Climb the context ladder — Many quarrels result from an overly narrow focus; both parties frame the issue too tightly. They don’t see the context and history. Asking questions like “How did we get to this point?”, “Why do you think this happened?” can help them climb the context ladder and get a broader understanding of the issue.
Listen, rinse, repeat – both parties will want to know that their side has been heard and considered. Listen carefully and summarize what you’ve heard. (“So, what I hear you saying is…”). If one person keeps repeating the same point, she doesn’t feel that she’s been heard. Repeat the process as necessary.
Identify points of agreement – most disputes are not black and white; they also contain many shades of gray. The participants may not recognize that there are many points of agreement. In fact, there may be more points of agreement than disagreement. Be sure to point these out and ask each party to validate them.
Avoid assumptions – don’t assume that you know how the parties feel or what they want. Ask questions even when the answer seems obvious. Ask both parties to explain themselves fully, while the other party is listening.
Don’t play winners versus losers – you want an agreement that both sides can live with. There’s no point in identifying one person as a winner and the other as the loser. A person who is identified as a loser will likely see the entire process as biased and unfair.
Don’t make recommendations; draw them out — an arbitrator listens to both sides and renders a judgment (often with a winner and a loser). A mediator also listens to both sides but doesn’t render a judgment. Rather, your job is to draw out recommendations from the two parties. Be patient; this will take time. But, it’s worth it in the end. If the parties themselves recommend the solution, both sides are more likely to live with it.