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How to play the “REF”

Mediate conflicts with fairness and consistency

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

When you play referee among bickering employees, it’s easy to pick sides. But you’re better off remaining neutral and reminding everyone to work together professionally, even if personal animosity intrudes.

Serve as a “REF” by following this three-step process (Rephrase—Empathize— Follow up) to defuse tension and refocus attention on the job at hand:

Rephrase. Rather than rush to respond to an employee’s accusations or complaints, check to make sure you begin on the right note. Rephrase an employee’s comments to confirm that you understand what’s been said.

If you skip this step, you may fall into the “assume and act” trap: You assume you know what someone’s saying, so you act rashly. This misguided approach promotes more problems because you’re trying to resolve the wrong issue.

In the early stage of mediating conflicts, respond to what you hear with phrases such as, “Let me make sure I heard you properly,” or, “To summarize your point, ____.” Restate the message in your own words if you wish, but preserve its accuracy. Allow the employee to correct you if you did not rephrase effectively.

Empathize. Rather than just rule on who’s right or wrong, step into each employee’s shoes. Acknowledge their differing points of view and the feelings they express. Use phrases such as, “I can understand that would upset you,” or, “I see that you’re really bothered by this.”

By injecting empathy into the conversation, you help angry employees settle down. When they realize that you appreciate the emotions behind their behavior, they’ll defer to you more readily.

Follow up. Dueling employees want to make themselves heard. You can reassure them that you’re willing to hear them out by asking at least one follow-up question to clarify their remarks. That may involve digging for more facts, posing “what happened next?” questions or asking for an employee to define a vague term.

By allowing them to clarify their remarks, you can avoid misunderstandings and show that you’re interested in learning more. Your curiosity will build trust and make them less apt to fight with each other for your attention.

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