What’s the Problem? The Importance of Framing When Colleagues Disagree

A manager has two direct reports who are frequently in conflict. An individual contributor is pulled into co-workers’ conflicts because he listens well. Sometimes they help resolve the conflict. Sometimes not. Consider these two scenarios:

Susan called Jack and Leslie into her office to discuss the timeline for a critical project. Right away, Leslie points to performance data showing that Jack’s team is consistently late. She says “Jack, your team is consistently late on important deadlines. How are you going to deal with that?” Jack bristles and looks to Susan for help. Susan affirms Leslie’s view and the meeting goes downhill quickly. Susan sits at her desk and wonders what she could have done differently.

Pedro is an individual contributor with an easy-going demeanor. At lunch with Jim and Stephanie, Jim brings up a recent miscommunication with Stephanie and Pedro tries to help by saying, “You need to be more accurate in your communication. We’re all worried we’re missing things because you’re too busy to write detailed emails.” Stephanie gives him “the look,” glances at her watch and leaves without a word. Pedro’s lunch sits in his stomach as he regrets not being more diplomatic, but he’s not sure what he could have said that wouldn’t make Stephanie angry.

Feel familiar? Ever tried to raise a difficult issue or intervene in a conflict and watch it all unravel? You know something you said landed wrong, but you struggle with what words might have made a difference.

Despite their best intentions, Susan and Pedro missed a critical key to any successful mediation: an opportunity to frame the problem. Any good mediator knows framing the issues is essential to bring people to the table – and keep them there. In fact, when the issues are not properly framed, a promising mediation can go south fast.

How the mediator frames the issues sets up everything that comes next. If Jack feels like Susan, his boss, sees the problem the same way as Leslie – and he feels blamed by Leslie – then working on the problem is to admit that he’s wrong. The way Leslie framed the issue put all the blame on Jack. It is unlikely that Jack will agree to that and the parties get stuck arguing about what the problem is, rather than focusing on what can be fixed. In other words, how you frame the problem is directly linked to problem solving – both getting to it and then doing it well.

Want to know more? Loraine Della Porta and I are offering a free, two-hour, interactive training that addresses this essential skill. We’ll also cover two other skills any good mediator needs, and overview the process and principles of mediation. Aimed at managers and individual contributors in nonprofits, municipalities, state agencies, and other sectors, participants will leave with skills they can use right away.

We hope you can join us on Wednesday, September 13 from 12:00-2:00 pm at the Nonprofit Center, located at 89 South St., Boston (right near South Station). We’ll have light refreshments; you’re welcome to bring your lunch. We’ll have fun, discuss your challenging conflicts, and leave with some skills. While the training is free, registration is required. Please let us know you’re coming by emailing info@themediationgroup.org or calling 617.277.9232.

This training is part of our Fall “Keep Learning Campaign” – where our goal is to help nonprofits, municipalities and government agencies build capacity through short, accessible trainings that focus on immediately applicable skills.

Put these other dates on your calendar:

  • Oct. 4 “What is Coaching and How to Use It” 12-2 at the Nonprofit Center, Boston
  • Nov 15 “We’ve Got to Start Meeting Like This!” 12-2 at the Nonprofit Center, Boston
  • Dec 13 “How to Do an Organizational Assessment” – Webinar through MNN; register here.


See you there!