Integrating Conflict Resolution into EAPs: Many of the Skills Needed for Conflict Resolution Are Familiar to EA Professionals and Can Be Used to Provide Additional Services or Enhance Existing Ones

Article excerpt

Conflict resolution (CR) has been known by several different names, including conflict management, dispute resolution, and alternative dispute resolution. Regardless of the name, the core skills and interventions are the same, and some of them will be familiar to employee assistance professionals.

Opportunities for collaboration between EA and CR professionals have expanded over the last few years (Margulies 2008; Porter and Sawyer-Harmon 2005; Wilburn 2006), in part because of the similarities between the two fields. Both seek to empower individuals to resolve their own problems, use similar skill sets, and encourage alternative means of resolving workplace disputes and conflicts.

This article provides an overview of some of the basic skills and interventions used by conflict resolution professionals and lists CR-specific references and resources. It also offers examples of direct applications of CR skills to EA practices.


Negotiation is a direct, face-to-face, two-party discussion that leads to a mutually agreeable, voluntary resolution. Negotiation is the foundation of all other forms of conflict resolution, since its principles underlie all "third-party" interventions (Mayer 2000).

Fisher, Ury, and Patton (1981) first delineated a set of research-based ground rules for interest-based negotiations. Because these principles can be applied to any situation where negotiation is necessary, EA professionals can use them in their direct work with clients or integrate them into trainings and workshops designed to empower clients to resolve their own disputes.

* Separate the people from the problem;

* Focus on interests;

* Generate options for mutual gain;

* Use objective criteria;

* Level the playing field;

* Negotiate in good faith; and

* Don't use dirty tricks or sneaky tactics.

Mediation is the intervention most often associated with CR practice. In mediation, an impartial third party facilitates a discussion between conflicting parties to help them reach a mutually agreeable, voluntary resolution (Mayer 2000).

The mediation process can take place in formal sessions conducted by trained professionals or more casual sessions managed by naturally skilled employees. As with negotiation, mediation can be incorporated into the menu of EAP services or used informally in everyday interactions in workplaces.

Although mediators do not take sides during the discussions, their involvement in the process is often much more directive than that of a facilitator. Mediators may make suggestions about communication styles and strategies, point out areas of agreement between the parties, and even intervene to stop a conversation that is becoming too emotionally conflicted. The ultimate goal of a mediator is to help the participants reconstruct their relationship by facilitating a mutually agreeable solution.

Negotiation and mediation are used primarily when disputes involve more than one individual referral and/or in cases where a supervisor or Human Resources manager requests an intervention between two or more employees with an ongoing or very visible dispute. EAP staff will assess the situation from the manager's position and, in most cases, schedule individual intake appointments for those involved.

After completing the intake process, the EAP may recommend a joint session with the employees. If so, the EA professional will use his/her negotiation and mediation skills to help the employees recognize and appreciate their shared interests and motivate them to reconcile their differences and reach a mutually agreeable solution. Expectations need to remain flexible, as all mediations and joint consultations differ according to the individual interests involved, and resolutions will vary accordingly.

If EA professionals intend to integrate mediation into their professional practice, formal training and/or certification is recommended (Wilburn 2006). …