Top tips … for resolving disputes in employment and education

Resolving disputes can be challenging as it requires a wide range of skills and techniques. Here are our “top tips” together with some useful links to further information that can be found on the internet.


Build rapport & trust from the outset

The first step is to start to build a rapport with the parties, demonstrating your impartiality and gaining their trust.

Building rapport –



Use your Emotional Intelligence 

Conflict resolution is an emotional business. Resolving people problems is rarely simply a matter of finding a rational solution, you will need to deal with their emotional responses to events leading up to the dispute, and often have to deal with your own emotions as well. To do this you will have to be able to use empathy (which is not the same as sympathy!).

Overview of Emotional


Empathy at

Empathy at work (video)



To be an effective dispute resolver you will have to be a good, active listener. But, genuine listening is not easy and it requires practice. Active listening is non-judgemental. You are not agreeing or disagreeing with the other person. You are showing them respect by giving them the space to fully express their perspective.  Without active listening you aren’t having a real dialogue, you are just hearing your own perceptions and preconceptions.


Real difference between hearing and

Morality starts with


Summarise & reframe the issues

You now need to check your understanding by feeding back what you have understood. You need to be able to summarise what you have learned and reflect this back, getting acknowledgement that this is a fair description of the situation. The accuracy of this summary will be crucial. It must cover all the major issues, fairly reflecting the views of the parties. It must not avoid sensitive or emotive issues but, where possible, should reframe these by using clear, non-confrontational, neutral language. Reframing the dialogue in this manner can provide new insights for those involved in a dispute by helping them to see things from a different perspective without pressurising them or insisting that any one perspective is ‘right’.

A practical guide to reframing

Mediation skills: reframing (video)youtube


Question & probe

Listening is not enough. You will need to ask questions and probe further when you feel that the participants are being reticent or even evasive. But, handled badly, asking questions can cause you to appear hostile or even biased. One way of managing this is to use the technique of ‘behaviour labelling’ so, for example, you might say something like “If I may I would like to ask you about…” Another approach would be to explain that you are being a ‘Devils’ Advocate’ and say something like “If I was arguing against you I might ask why…” In other words, you pre-condition the parties so that you can then ask them challenging questions without prejudicing your neutrality.

Enhancing mediator

Probing questions



Watch for (and use) non-verbal cues

As well as listening to what is being said, you will need to be alert to what is being communicated non-verbally. Equally, you need to be conscious of how you are being perceived. Awareness of your own body language can be helpful; for example, ‘mirroring’ can be a good way of encouraging rapport. But, a note of caution, don’t make assumptions. The person to whom you are talking may naturally feel comfortable with their legs crossed. Don’t assume they are tense or defensive! Check first. Mediation can learn a lot from counselling when it comes to gaining an appreciation of non-verbal cues.


Verbal and non-verbal communications

Counselling skills, non-verbal

How to read body


Use deadlock-breaking techniques

At some point in their resolution most disputes reach what appears to be an impasse. To move the parties forward you will need to be able to employ a range of deadlock-breaking techniques. For example, you might try a judicious use of adjournments, parking the problem, brainstorming options or changing the dynamics of the meeting. Many of these techniques may already be familiar to you from other contexts; deadlock breaking can be important in fields as diverse as change management and sales.

Understanding and breaking


6 ways to break a negotiation deadlock (video)youtube

What is a Caucus?

Negotiating after


Take unobtrusive notes

A difficulty many dispute resolvers encounter is how to take a note of what is being said without distracting the speaker or missing a vital verbal or non-verbal cue. It is not easy because being seen to be taking copious notes can put a barrier between you and the participants. Fortunately, this is another technique which is transferable from other situations. Put simply, you need to explain why you are taking notes (it is for your use only and you are not writing a report) and then only record odd words or particularly relevant phrases. Indeed, used constructively, this can demonstrate to the participants that you are paying attention!


Back to basics: Perfect your note-taking


Draft an agreement

If your intervention has proved successful, you may be asked to help draw up a written agreement setting out the terms on which the dispute has been resolved. Many disputes will not require this; it will be enough for both sides to have had their say and have discussed how they will interact in the future. But, where this is not sufficient and a document is necessary, the form it will take will very much depend on the context of the dispute. It may be that all is required is a note for the parties to take away to record what they will now do next. Alternatively, where employment is to be ended or varied, and money (or some other consideration such as a reference) exchanged, then a legally binding contract will be essential. To do so, the parties must get legal advice and assistance to draw up a settlement agreement. Your role is likely to be limited to helping produce an acceptable ‘heads of agreement’ that can subsequently be used to establish a valid settlement agreement.



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Much more can be said about dispute resolution. Contact us if you would like to learn more about the assistance we can provide with dispute resolution.