Mediation Averts a Meltdown at a Non-Profit

David Hoffman and Richard Wolman

A national non-profit came to us with a problem: an angry exchange between the executive director and the finance director had paralyzed the organization. Tensions, simmering beneath the surface for months, were now unavoidable. “I feel like I cannot even go to the office – that’s how tense it’s become,” one of the parties reported. The stakes were high: failing to resolve the conflict could have been detrimental not only to the parties’ careers but could have endangered the viability of an important public interest organization. We convened a mediation to address the conflict – with our first session in Newton and a second session in Boston – comprised of the two officers involved in the dispute.

As co-mediators, each of us brought different kinds of experience to the process. David has mediated numerous cases involving business and employment issues; Richard is experienced in dealing with the psychological dimensions of conflict. In this case, both types of issues were readily apparent.

What made this mediation noteworthy was that the intensity of the conflict was at least matched by the strong commitment of the parties to an amicable resolution. Both of them immediately recognized the value of mediation ground rules under which the parties agreed to treat each other with respect. David contacted each of the parties separately before the mediation, and they shared with us their perspectives on what had transpired, as well as copies of angry email exchanges.

In the first session, the parties talked about what it would take for them to remain working together. They both agreed that the organization would be better off if they could. Richard’s perspectives about their differing personalities and work styles helped to de-stigmatize the differences that fueled their conflict. We asked them whether, if they could roll back the videotape of their conflict, there was anything they would have done differently. Their answers paved the way to a resolution.

In the second and final mediation session, the parties focused on the terms of a settlement, which included contingencies if their working relationship were to collapse. There was no ignoring the possibility that difficulties could re-emerge and that the organization could ill afford frequent mediations to keep them on track. We noticed, however, that once their contingency plan was in place, the parties relaxed and began to look with more optimism at the value of continued collaboration. After they signed a settlement agreement, they asked us to prepare a memo summarizing our observations of their differing styles, which they felt would be useful to them as a reminder to be less judgmental about those stylistic differences. And they asked us to consider a further meeting with them in the future as they implemented the plans set forth in their agreement.

Mediation is an inherently satisfying line of work – especially when it results in settlement. This case was uniquely satisfying, for us, however, because of the integrity, self-awareness, and positive motivation of the parties. We have also done mediations of this kind with for-profit companies, and the issues are not different there. Internal dynamics in the workplace often breed conflict, but conflict handled creatively and respectfully can produce positive change, with better alignment of personnel and a higher degree of mutual understanding.

[David Hoffman is an attorney, mediator, and arbitrator at Boston Law Collaborative, LLC. Dr. Richard Wolman, Ph.D. is an experienced clinician, mediator, teacher and researcher.]