After six years as the UNISON Branch Secretary of Lambeth Council and many more as Chairman of the Residents Committee of a London street, Ed Hall has racked up a wealth of experience in the mediation of disputes.
Whether arguments have stemmed from firmly entrenched political views, or neighbours disagreeing about rubbish bins, conflict resolution requires certain techniques, patience and no small amount of skill.
Ed’s work at the Union was frequently fraught with friction between employers and employees.
“The best thing is to try and look at the problem developing,” he told us. “Try and recognise a problem at the very start, don’t allow it to drift into something more serious.”
When problems arise at work, managers are often unaware of them, which can be a dangerous situation that leads to unhappy staff and low morale. But if problems are raised at the outset, they can be addressed before they develop into fissures in relationships. Prevention of disputes is an advanced level of conflict resolution.
All disputes are different, of course, but one piece of advice has helped Ed be successful in mediating disagreements. “I think it’s important to engage personally with the person in a dispute,” he said.
This can be seen in a social experiment run by Heineken, where two people with opposing views met for the fist time. It found that being up-close to the person who has a different opinion - and, indeed, enjoying a drink together - helped them accept each other’s viewpoints.
In one particular case for Ed, someone employed by his resident’s committee was claiming a large sum of money that the committee did not believe was due to him. Court action was being threatened and a polarised correspondence ensued. But meeting someone face to face can build up a level of trust. The complainant can see you, not as the author of formal letters, but as a human being with whom he might share some common values.
A letter from a stranger telling you your claim or argument is unrealistic is likely to build resentment. But that same position expressed over a drink can reveal the sincerity of the message, and is more likely to be accepted.
Another dispute over a border issue had seen a neighbour vent considerable anger in his direction. “The most important thing is not to take it personally,” said Ed.
Ed had found that often people who express a deep vexation over an issue are in fact angry at some other aspect of their lives and the dispute becomes a safe place for them to deposit their feelings of annoyance.
“However badly someone behaves, listen. Really try and listen. Within that abuse may be a kernel that reveals the real problem. Sometimes the seeds of a solution are revealed in that anger. You can’t let yourself get to a stage where there’s no way back. You have to keep talking.”
Listening and talking are key in all hopes of settling disputes. It is vital that at least the mediator is able to understand both sides of an argument, even if the two parties are unable to.
In addition to his union role, Ed at one point ran the Lambeth Council Social Club and had to deal with some very difficult situations. Again, in dealing with customers who had lost their self control, talking was vital.
“At the extreme end, you must keep talking, even if the guy is really angry, keep eye contact and keep talking. It’s worth talking to someone for an hour, rather than allow any escalation of the issue. 100% of times, that was a successful technique.”
Some like to resolve conflict through distraction, or accommodation, through compromise or collaboration, but Ed has always found the personal touch, meeting eye-to-eye, facing problems head on, has seen common ground reached from far away positions.
It’s easy to be belligerent from behind a keyboard, but our similarities are much more apparent in person, and agreement easier to reach.