I have seen first-hand the harm that can be caused by conflict in organizations: Valued people leave. Stress. Decisions aren’t made and things don’t get done. A feeling of helplessness.
Mediation offers a cost-effective, efficient, and collaborative way to resolve harmful conflict and preserve relationships. I help clients create organizations where people can focus on their work without the distraction of personal conflicts.
But not all conflict is bad. I am passionate about working with teams and boards so that members can trust one another enough to have constructive and respectful disagreements about things that matter.
Like many mediators, I came into the field after doing something else. I taught philosophy at the university level for about 10 years. My academic specialties were the philosophy of art and ethics. But no matter what the specific material I was teaching, I always considered that my primary task was helping others to think clearly. I’m still doing this, but now as a mediator.
Some of my recent work:
- Helped prevent the break-up of a profitable business partnership through conflict coaching and ongoing support.
- Restored a respectful workplace at a small industrial firm by helping them develop and implement a “Code of Conduct.”
- Investigated sexual harassment and bullying allegations for a major Canadian university.
- Coached a client to prepare her for a difficult negotiation about the family property.
- Helped a creative-sector firm to resolve conflicts that had arisen in the course of a management transition.
- Restored damaged working relationships by helping to resolve long-standing conflicts between two company divisions.
I also provide civil mediation services for lawyers and their clients as an associate with the Sadowski Resolutions Group LLP. I am on the Attorney General’s roster for the Ontario Mandatory Mediation Program.
I work with single individuals and with large and small organizations. One thing never changes: client names and identifying details are strictly confidential.
I’m still active in academic philosophy. You can find out more about my work at www.jeanettebicknell.org When I’m not working or spending time with my family, you are likely to find me at a yoga studio. (But don’t worry, if you work with me I won’t ask you to sit in a circle and chant, etc.)
Thinking About Conflict and Value is my blog. Conflict is what mediators spend most of their time thinking about, working through, and trying to resolve. Value refers both to moral values and to aesthetic or artistic values. I write on a wide variety of topics, including best practices in mediation, ethical and legal issues in the arts, workplace conflict, business ethics, and the ethics of everyday life. You may also find the occasional book review. I invite you to join in the discussion on these blog posts.
From the Blog:
Dyke v. Metropolitan Toronto Condo. Corp. No. 972, 2015 ONSC 732
Decision Date: January 30, 2015
This motion refers back to Justice Morgan’s 2013 finding on behalf of the applicant in her noise complaint against the condo corporation. (To make a long story short, the source of the noise was a professional dance studio situated in the unit above the applicant’s. The dance studio moved in November 2013.) This action turns on whether the corporation “disregarded, intentionally violated, or otherwise flouted” the order. While the corporation may have been “a tad slow or bureaucratic” their conduct does not rise to the standard of contempt. The judge awarded costs of $20 000 to the corporation; they had sought $97 000 on a substantial indemnity basis or $66 000 on a partial indemnity basis. The applicant has also made a claim for damages against the corporation, which will be heard together with a separate action she has brought, naming additional parties.
Comment: The applicant continues to be bothered by noise originating from the unit upstairs. (Ordinary residential noise, rather than noise associated with a dance studio.) The judge reaffirmed the position that condominium dwellers are entitled to “quiet enjoyment” but not silence.
Toronto Standard Condominium Co. No. 1487 v. Market Lofts Inc., 2015 ONSC 1067
Decision Date: Feb 18, 2015
This is a request for summary judgment to enforce a Shared Services Agreement between the plaintiff and the defendant. Under the 2001 agreement both premises were to share costs related to shared facilities and services (including the roof, the foundation, the hot water tank, and some of the alarm monitoring system). The agreement seems to have been ignored by the plaintiff’s property manager at the time; the failure to enforce it was also an oversight or failure by TSCC’s board. In late 2010/2011, a new property management team noticed the Agreement and prepared a claim for payment by the defendant in the amount of over $162, 000. The defendant refused to pay, claiming that there was a “common understanding” that each party would take care of its own expenses. Justice Perell found no evidence of such an understanding, and granted the summary judgment motion.
Valentina Vasilescu Tarko et al. v. Metropolitan Toronto Condominium Corporation 626 et al., 2015 ONSC 982
Decision Date: Feb, 13, 2015
This is an appeal of a small claims court decision. MTCC 626 is the condominium corporation for Renaissance Plaza, a mixed use building with residential and commercial units, retail space, office space and an indoor parking garage. Some of the condominium owners had parking arrangements which were automatically renewed each year, and others had monthly parking which could be terminated by either side. The owner of the monthly parking spaces terminated the agreement; MTCC commenced litigation and was unsuccessful. To pay the “significant” legal costs, the Board created a Special Assessment on individual condominium owners of $7 per square foot. The appellants disagreed with the Special Assessment and circulated an open letter arguing against it; the unit owners ratified the Special Assessment at the Annual General Meeting on May 30, 2011. On June 28, 2013 the appellants commenced a small claims court action. The Deputy Judge stayed the claim, as it was issued 25 months after the AGM. (The Limitations Act specifies that ordinarily a claim may not be commenced more than 2 years after a claim is discovered.) The basis of this appeal is that the claim did not take effect until July 1, 2011, when the first installment of the Special Assessment was due. The judge rejected the appeal and awarded costs of $5000 to the respondents.
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“Bascula 8” by L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lmbuga) – self made, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Bascula_8.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
It is no secret that organizations that encourage frank discussion around new business ideas and analysis of their mistakes and shortcomings benefit hugely, in terms of innovation, improvement, and higher creativity. When team members feel that they can contribute in a healthy debate, the entire organization is better off. Yet how do you encourage critical discussion without de-motivating or even alienating people when conflict emerges?
Based on my work on conflict resolution and my background in philosophy, I have become interested in the problem of how to develop team cultures that allow for open critical discussion around key business problems while maintaining high morale and engagement.
For a limited time, I am offering a free introductory session on this topic. I’ve found that even one session of this material can improve group dynamics because it raises awareness and gives people a space to discuss the kind of interactions they want to have. I’ve surveyed some of the best research on this topic, and I can tell you that there are steps to take (as well as steps to avoid) that can give you workplace dynamics that will encourage critical discussion and significantly improve engagement, morale, and team dynamics. The first session does not get into all of the techniques, but it offers value and is a good starting point.
If you’re interested, get in touch through the contact form.
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“Barn raising – Leckie’s barn completed in frame” by John Boyd –
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Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sometimes the people who reach out to me recognize that they’re in a bad situation, but they fear that trying mediation (or some other type of intervention) will only make things worse.
There is a powerful appeal to simply living with the devil one knows. These people are coping. They know that things could be better, but they haven’t reached a crisis point where some kind of intervention seems necessary. If you’ll forgive another cliché, they see the elephant in the room but they fear that talking about it might provoke the elephant and cause a scene. And so they resolve to handle things as best as they can, sometimes venting to sympathetic friends and family.
The fear that intervening in a situation will make it worse is far from irrational. Sometimes an intervention does makes things worse. We’ve all heard about the person who went into hospital for some relatively minor matter and ended up with an antibiotic resistant infection.
Hospitals aside, for the most part only ill-timed or inept interventions make a conflict situation worse. When I first meet with clients and hear the history of their conflict, there is often a point at which a bad but stable situation deteriorates and becomes untenable. I can often trace that point of deterioration to some kind of intervention that went wrong. Maybe a manager intervened between two co-workers in a way that revealed a bias. Maybe harsh things were said that the speaker now regrets. Maybe an investigation didn’t probe deeply enough and felt more like a whitewash than an impartial inquiry.
So I can well understand the feelings of those who would rather put up with a difficult situation than take steps to change it. Once the elephant in the room has been acknowledged there is no going back to the days when everyone could see it but said nothing. That anticipation can increase anxiety.
When I’m working with a client who is struggling about whether to raise an issue or continue to live with things as they are, I often ask them to do this: Imagine it is one year from now. You’re getting up and getting ready for your day, and you know that this same issue is still alive. Nothing about it has changed. How do you feel?
Sometimes, when I ask someone to do this thought experiment, their face falls and they look stricken. The thought of living another year and confronting the same issue is just too much. At that point, they realize that they had better do something. Inaction and “coping” are no longer viable options, and they’re ready to let me help them.
An intervention by a mediator who has the skills, experience, and objectivity to assess a situation is unlikely to make things worse. A good mediator will help you send the message that you want to send, make sure that everyone has a chance to share their perspective, and generally ensure mutual respect.
Conflicts rarely go away on their own. You have to take action to resolve them, but you don’t have to do it on your own.