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099 | How mediation skills can help you resolve conflict at work, with Pete Colby
Episode 9925th August 2023 • HR Coffee Time • Fay Wallis
00:00:00 00:28:59

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Conflict is something you’ll often be asked to help with in your role as a People professional. So, mediation skills are a useful conflict resolution tool to have in your toolbox, ready to put into action when you need them.

In this episode of HR Coffee Time, Pete Colby, Director and lead Mediator at Pragmatism joins host, Fay Wallis, to talk through how mediation skills can help you resolve conflict at work. Some of the many things he covers include:

  • Exactly what mediation is and what mediation skills are.
  • Why grievances don’t solve workplace issues, but mediations do.
  • How mediation skills can be used to nip problems in the bud before they escalate.
  • Why mediation skills can have huge benefits for People teams and organizations as a whole.
  • What makes a great mediator.

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Welcome back to HR Coffee Time, a podcast to help you have a successful and fulfilling HR or People career without working yourself into the ground. I'm your host, Fay Wallis, a career and executive coach with a background in HR and I'm also the creator of the HR Planner. It's wonderful to have you here, and I really hope you're going to enjoy today's episode where we'll be taking a look at how mediation skills can help you resolve conflict at work.

Because in your role as an HR or People professional, conflict is something you'll often be asked to help with. And I think that mediation skills can be a great tool to have in your toolbox, ready to put into action when you need them.

I'm excited to have the fabulous Pete Colby back on the show. You may remember Pete from episode 56, which was called How to Do a Great Job with Collective Consultations for Redundancies.

Pete is the director and lead mediator at his business, Pragmatism. And is a master in the art of conflict resolution through mediation. After I attended his mediation skills training earlier this year, I asked him if he'd come back on the show to share his knowledge with us all. Thankfully, he said yes, and you are about to hear him talk us through what mediation actually is and what mediation skills are, why grievances don't solve workplace issues but mediations do, how mediation skills can be used to nip problems in the bud before they escalate, and how they can have huge benefits for People teams and organizations as a whole.

Pete also shares what he thinks makes a great mediator, and his answer to this might be different to what you're expecting.

So, whether you are already an experienced mediator, or you have a little bit of knowledge of mediation, or you've never looked into mediation skills before, I really hope you're going to enjoy learning from Pete today.

Let's go ahead and meet him now.

Welcome to the show, Pete. It is wonderful to have you back. I seem to have a bit of a theme going on at the moment with guests coming back on the podcast because I had Jo Taylor from Let's Talk Talent back on for the second time the other day, and I've also had, oh, I should say the other week. It was a little while ago now. And I also had Kim Arnold come back on, so it's fabulous to have you here today.


It's great to be back, Fay. I'm just, I'm just absolutely gutted that I'm not your first returner, but third best is is not too bad.


Well, do, you know, I think you were scheduled in to be the first returner, but unfortunately you were really poorly. So, I promise you have been top of mind and let's hope that Jo and Kim never hear me say that.




You are all equally top of mind. It's fabulous to have all of you here, and I better carry on before I get myself in trouble. So let me get started by letting you know how much I'm looking forward to our chat today because. I just know how useful and interesting it's going to be for everyone to hear what you have to say about mediation skills.

I heard so many glowing recommendations for your mediation training that as you know, I ended up signing up and I attended the course that you ran in February this year, which means that I now have a much better understanding of mediation and I really do now appreciate what a huge benefit the skills can have.

For HR and people teams. So I know that obviously I'm very lucky because I've now done the training, but most people listening won't have done so. Can I just ask you to start off with the basics and tell us what exactly is mediation and how do mediation skills help resolve conflict at work?


Of course. So first of all, it was great to see you on the training and you know, what a great, what a great mediator you could be, should you choose to utilize those skills. So yeah, mediation is very, very simple. So what we're doing in mediation is getting to do that thing that us as human beings have been able to do for thousands of years, and that's talk to each other.

And most importantly, listen to each other. So mediation, what you'll hear me talk about a lot is how grievances don't resolve issues. Because in grievances, what we don't do is talk to each other. We take statements and we try to prove things in the past. So in mediation, what we're doing is two people, or even more than two people who are, have got issues with each other.

We're helping them to have those conversations. Talk to each other. Really importantly, listen to each other and understand each other's perspectives, and then explore options for resolving things and making life better in future. And no idea is a bad idea. Every option is open to them, and as long as they can find mutual ground, then they decide what the future's gonna be. Instead of somebody like a judge deciding who's won and who's lost.


I know that you feel that in an ideal world, there would be no grievances and grievances would be completely banned.


Absolutely. I'm, I'm allergic to grievances. But having said that, you know, I'm not saying that I've never been involved in any grievances. So I trained 27 years ago in mediation, and probably in that time I probably have been involved in maybe between five and 10 grievances. Because the organizations I was with probably didn't see the value of the mediation or didn't understand it quite as much. So yeah, the, what I'm often saying is I see grievances a failure.

So 99.99% of the time, it's the failure of an organization to resolve issues informally. But probably 0.01% of the time, it's a failure of an individual to have any sense of rationale. And those people do exist and those people are beyond help when it comes to mediation. And therefore they, everybody has the right to raise a grievance and then that is probably the right route for them.

But for 99.99% of the population, the right thing to do is talk it through and come up with their own solutions.


I'm now worried I've completely misquoted you, Pete, by saying that you said all grievances should be banned.

Perhaps I was being a little bit extreme and misquoting you slightly there.


It's, it's, it's one of those things that, you know, every organization should have a grievance policy. Every employee should have the right to raise a grievance. But if I describe the perfect grievance policy, it should be sat on a shelf with six inch of dust because you never need it, because actually proper conversations mean that, that actually we don't need to go down a formal taking statements and trying to prove each other right or wrong in the past process, which is gonna conclude in a lack of evidence to prove and is gonna make things worse.


Well, you have me completely intrigued now. You mentioned that you first trained as a mediator 27 years ago, I think you said. So how did you first come across mediation and start developing your own mediation skills?


So when I was a very junior HR in fact, not HR. Personnel administrator in British Steel, I had a quite a forward thinking boss as a personnel manager.

And he asked me to go on a mediation course. And I asked him what mediation means. And I went on a course and it taught me about perspectives and active listening and how to get people to talk to each other, et cetera. And so I'd been involved in a few grievances. I'd been involved in a few disputes with unions and things, and it just changed my thinking.

I, I do think mediation's a life skill, not just a skill for mediation. And in that 27 years, I would say at least 90, 95% of the time that I've used the skills have not been in mediations. They've been in general issues in life, in work and outside work as well, and it, it just makes you think differently when you think as a mediator.


I remember seeing a post that you posted online about using your mediation skills with your vet when there was a dispute about your dog's treatment at the vets. And it was actually seeing that post that made me think, do you know what? I'm definitely going to sign up for the training because anyone who knows me well, or anyone who's been listening to the podcast for a long time will know that I'm not a huge fan of conflict.

It's something I always found difficult throughout life and I've had to really, really work on, and I really had to work on in my former HR career. So it was that story that really made me realize. Oh gosh. Actually, not only could this be helpful in a work context, but this, this could really help me throughout my whole life whenever I'm in a situation where there is some level of conflict.


Absolutely. And you know that story about the vet and things as mediators. We, we talk about people's interests rather than their positions. And that was just me helping the vet to understand what my main interests were. i.e. the health of my dog and the health of my pocket. i.e. Vets are very expensive. Rather than his assumed position that I was gonna take, which was about litigation.

And once you can have those conversations about joint interests, it's amazing how you can actually come to mutual resolutions. And a lot of people talk to me about why, why do you love conflict? I don't. I hate conflict, which is exactly why I love being a mediator, because it avoids conflict. Liken the business that I run to selling burglar alarms.

So most people will buy a burglar alarm once they get burgled. And actually if you train in mediation skills, you don't need mediations. 'cause that's preventative. So a lot of the things that I talk about and what we teach people on the training is all about nipping issues in the bud. And, it's really about those conversations that all start with a little fire and it's all about putting that little fire out as soon as possible rather than it get into a conflict situation.

Obviously, when we get called in as mediators, it's gone quite to a high level of dispute, so we don't enjoy the dispute bit, but what we do enjoy is the end results. Which is people working out how they're gonna move forward and how they're gonna build those relationships, or sometimes how they're gonna separate that employment relationship.


One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about the training was the fact that you used lots of case studies. So while we were all doing the training, we'd have to do some role play, which I've been a bit nervous about and dreading, but actually it was really good and really helpful. But part of the role plays, we were given a situation and it would explain what kind of dispute or conflict there was, and you would be representing one person in the mediation.

Another person who was on the training would be, representing someone else. And then the other person on the training would get a chance to practice being the mediator. And then we'd all swap roles around so that everyone got the opportunity to role play from the different perspectives. And what I hadn't realized at first was the fact that all of the case studies we were using, all of the role plays we were doing to practice were actual real life mediations that you have been involved in. And so after we all had the opportunity of doing those role plays and doing that practice, you would come in and share the story and explain what had actually happened. And I think it really drove the point home of just how powerful mediation can be and actually made you realize how many different situations conflict can arise in, and often the fact that it can be resolved. And

when I was thinking about our conversation today, Pete, I thought I must ask you, of all the mediations you've done over the years, 'cause clearly it's a lot. There were some brilliant case studies that you had us using. Of all the mediations you've done over the years, which is the one that you're proudest of.


It's a hard question to answer because, 'cause I'm proud of them all. Can I give you two answers?


You can. You can.


If I look at just the scale of disputes I would say the proudest one from a scale perspective would be a national strike with a national trade union. And

thousands and thousands of people involved, losing money by striking, lots of stress and things like that. And the mediation, which was actually between two groups, i e the management group and the trade union group. Resolving that dispute was probably the biggest and most widespread single mediation that I've ever done.

So, you know, impacted thousands of people. So that's proudest from, from a, a size perspective. I think as regards proudest from, if I think about the values of what we're doing in mediation, 'cause time, costs, and stress. Most importantly, stress are the biggest. Ones that, you know, they're the reasons that we're doing this.

If I think of a case that was particularly emotive and actually was one of the two cases that I've been involved in, where one of the individuals shared with me privately that, that they'd attempted to take their own life during the process and with all the stress that they've been going through.

And it was, it was registered for tribunal, et cetera. When we settled that case, the, the hug that the person gave me and the words that they used as regards, they said something like, I feel like you've saved my life. That's very emotional and, and that's very, you know, it really hits you in the centre of your heart.

And that's, that's why we're doing what we do in mediation. So when I do a mediation, I always describe to people that, apart from my daughter Millie and my wife Liz, those people are the most important people in my life for that day or however long the mediation takes. And I mean that. And when you get a reaction like that, which we get lots of really emotional reactions, but you know that one stands out as really meaning something and making a difference to an individual.

So, sorry I gave you two answers, but. I couldn't narrow it down to one.


Oh, please don't apologize at all. It's really wonderful to hear those two examples and I, I can, I feel really emotional with you describing the second one as well. When we're talking about concepts and thinking about ways we can upskill ourselves or do really good work.

It can be, I suppose, easy to forget sometimes the huge emotional impact and just, well it's a reminder, isn't it, of how important the work is that HR and People professionals and mediators and coaches, how important the work is that we do.


Absolutely. And, and do you mind if I use a bit of a bad word?


Okay. I might have to beep it out. We'll see. It depends how bad it is, Pete.


Beep it out if it feels appropriate for the podcast. But one thing I'm often saying to people is, if your life at home is shit and your life at work is shit. That means your life is shit. And there's only a little bit we can do about the home life, but there's everything we can do about the work life.

And many people spend a lot more time at work than they do at home. And it's an important distraction for people when they've got a really difficult home life as well. So it's so important, but if we can resolve and help them move forward with the work side of life, you are making a massive difference to their whole life.

And sorry for using the bad word, but that's the way I put it across. And it's so true. And we're often talking to people about, you know, these things really put things in perspective for people and people need to focus on what's important. And what's important for most people is family, friends, loved ones not issues at work.

So it's all about perspective.


Well, I won't beep it out because I think it's a very powerful way of explaining how important all, all of our work is, and I think from what we've been talking about, it's probably going to feel quite obvious as to how developing mediation skills as an HR or People professional can be a good idea for your career and a great thing to have in your toolbox.

But I want to make sure, I have actually asked you the question explicitly as well in, how do you see mediation skills in really helping anyone with their HR or People career?


Well, I can only go off my own experience and I, I was lucky enough to learn the skills quite early on. So, you know, it very much shaped the way that my career went and my career was always, I used to get the statement of, you are not a normal HR person. And

that's not being derogatory to the HR function, but what people meant was you don't guide us down a process that's, that's painful. You get us together and you get us to talk about issues and, and you help us to resolve them. I always saw that as a compliment. So, so I think it would shape any HR person's career.

If I think about our mediators, so I've got a, a slowly growing team of mediators in the business and they're people that we've trained, and I'm sure they won't mind me mentioning them, but if I think about Nikki and John, who are very well established HR professionals. They both talked to me about they wish they'd done this years, if not decades.

I don't want to give any ages away, but many years ago. And, the value that they get from mediating and the job satisfaction that they get from mediating is something that I know that they can apply to many hundreds of cases in the past where if they'd have done things differently.

It would've given not only them the job satisfaction, but maybe might have shaped careers, but also helped those organizations culturally as well.


Thank you for sharing that. I haven't thought about the fact that some of the mediators on your team, of course, will have actually moved into mediation from a former HR or People career. But although our main focus today because it's HR Coffee Time has been on thinking about how mediation skills can help your career and why they're important and what they are.

It's not just the People function who you believe would benefit from learning mediation skills, is it? Who do you think the best people within an organization are to train as mediators?


So I've mentioned Nikki and John, who do have HR backgrounds, but another member of our team is Derek, who's never worked in HR. So mediation is not about the job that you do.

Mediation is about the person that you are. Which is why when we go into organizations and train internal mediation teams, we always encourage the client, which is usually the HR director or HR manager, to think about the skills rather than jobs. So most HR people will make great mediators, but some won't.

A lot of managers will make great mediators. Some definitely won't. And often we pick these good managers out to hear grievances and things because of their ability to talk to people, et cetera, and listen, all these good things. They'll probably make great mediators as well. So the thing that makes a great mediator are things like, and I can share a blog on this if it's useful. But things like the ability to not judge, the ability to work in the gray rather than being black and white. Obviously the ability to keep confidentiality, that's probably the number one requirement. But the ability to listen and, and the ability to be able to facilitate people to be able to listen to each other as well, and then to facilitate them towards reaching solutions.

So it might be that the best mediator in an organization is. The MD, or it might be a middle manager, or it might be the person on reception, or it might be your cleaner. It's actually about the type of person that they are. It's a bit of a DNA thing, so the people that shouldn't try to be mediators are the people who are purely black and white,

they completely judge everybody and they can't keep anything confidential whatsoever. Those people will never make a good mediator.


That's really helpful to have the overview of the skills that you think are so important, and thank you for mentioning the blog post. I'll make sure that I link to that in the show notes in case anyone listening wants to go away and have a read of that as well.

And, I can't believe how quickly the time has gone, Pete. It always flies by when we are chatting. But you are the first person I'm going to change up one of the final questions with. As everyone listening knows who's been listening to the show regularly, I normally ask most guests to share their top nonfiction book recommendation.

But I thought I would start trying something a little bit different. I don't know how this is going to go down because I know lots of people love the book recommendations, so I might just do this for a few weeks. Or Pete, you might be the only person I ask. We'll see how it goes. But, so my new question is around confidence because one of the biggest things I'm asked to support with, with coaching throughout the People and HR profession is confidence and that lack of confidence that we can all feel at various points. The question is, what is a confidence boosting tip that you can share with us today?


So thank you for not asking for another book recommendation. 'cause as you know, I'm not a big reader of books. I'm not really into theory. I'm more into practice. So, I think the main thing for me, if I think about my career, which is quite long. You know, I'm 53 years old, so I've had quite a long career. One thing that people are often surprised when I talk to them is I had a real crisis of confidence when I was quite early in my career, and it was all about standing up in front of people and presenting.

I would class it almost as a phobia. To the extent where if anybody asked me to do a presentation, I would call in sick. Because the thought of doing a presentation filled me with dread. And a very influential manager of mine who, who I would see as almost a coach, once talked to me about why that was.

And it was because I'd had a couple of bad experience where it, where I'd been asked to present things that I wasn't totally confident about. And they didn't go well. People in the audience knew more about it than me. They wanted to see themselves as clever and ask very clever questions that I couldn't answer, and it didn't go very well.

So that was the root cause of my lack of confidence. Now, when I stand in front of groups of one or 200 people and I mentioned that, people almost don't believe you. And the bit of advice that I was given, that I would, that I would pass to anybody was the advice I was given. He said, don't ever stand up and present something that you are not the expert at. And if, if you are the expert, you will be confident in answering the questions. So when I talk about mediation, when I talk about conflict, et cetera, I'm purely comfortable because I feel that I can answer most questions that people will ask me. If I do a presentation about

accountancy, I'll probably struggle a little bit and there'll probably be somebody who's better at accounting in the audience than me. So the one tip I would give is that statement about don't, don't let anybody put you in a position where you are leading something, where you don't feel that you've got the expertise to lead that thing and be honest with people and don't put yourself in that position. Because as soon as you experience that negative, experience of something not going well, it, it knocks your confidence and then if it happens again, it knocks it even further and you start thinking about what's gonna go wrong rather than what can go right. And that's not a positive way to think.


Well, thank you for sharing that. I had no idea what aspect of confidence you're going to talk about. It's really interesting hearing what you chose because I think that dread of public speaking is something that so many of us have experienced, and actually I've even done a whole podcast episode about building confidence when having to present, or whether that's in a meeting or to a whole massive group of people, or as part of an interview process.

So again, I'll make sure that I pop a link to that episode in the show notes as well. All that leads me to say now, Pete is just a huge thank you for coming back on the show to talk to us all. It's been fantastic having you here. And for anyone who's listening, who is really interested in learning more about you and the work that you do, what is the best way of them getting in touch with you or learning more?


I am fairly active on social media. So I'm on LinkedIn, Pete Colby. I don't think there's that many Pete Colbys on there, but you should find me on there. And the website is So all the information's on there as well.


Fabulous. And as always, I'll pop links to those in the show notes as well.

Thank you so much, Pete and goodbye.


Thanks, Fay. It's been great to see you again. Take care.


I'd love to know what you think now that you've taken a bit of a deep dive into mediation with Pete. Are you tempted to develop mediation skills for yourself, or perhaps to introduce them into your organization? Or are you already an experienced mediator and have been able to help resolve conflicts with your fabulous skills?

I always love hearing from you, and you can reach me on LinkedIn. I'm on there as myself. 'Fay' without an E on the end and my surname is 'Wallis', which ends in 'is'. Or, you can find the link to my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Or if you are signed up to receive my free weekly HR coffee time email, you can always reply to any of the emails that you get from me.

I love hearing from you, and I always try to respond personally to every message I receive from anyone who listens to the show. And just quickly before I say goodbye, can I ask you for a small favour? I would be hugely grateful if you could rate and review HR Coffee Time on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It makes a massive difference in encouraging the podcasting platforms to recommend the show to listeners who haven't come across it before. And I would love to help as many HR and People professionals as I can with these free weekly episodes. Thank you so much, and if you do rate or review the show, please do let me know so I can say thank you. Have a great week, and I will be back again next Friday with the 100th episode.

I can't quite believe HR Coffee Time will be up to 100 episodes and has been going for just over two years, so I'm looking forward to celebrating that landmark with you next week.




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