Author: Brandon Grysko

Founder & Principal of Workplace Dispute Resolution, LLC -- a conflict management and mediation company dedicated to promoting workplace harmony and reducing the cost of conflict.

Lost in the Shuffle

A trip to my local government agency reminded me that there’s more work to be done—on myself!

The Takeaway: Build conflict-management strategies into your conversational repertoire so you have something to fall back on when caught off guard.

Call to Action: Read Don’ts for Negotiating Difficult Conversations to get started with simple action steps.

A recent visit to Michigan’s infuriating Secretary of State office to renew my driver’s license reminded me—yet again—of the power that emotion has to influence (i.e. derail) an interaction.

Let me explain…

Like a true procrastinator, I waited until nearly the last possible moment to renew my driver’s license. Luckily, the Secretary of State (SOS) had some online appointments available. Like any true government agency, the SOS is riddled with wait times, long lines, and other bureaucratic irrelevancies. The beauty of an appointment is you get to walk to the front of the line at your scheduled time.

So I get there early. My time comes, but they never announce my number. A quick check of my phone shows I’m supposed to be at window 13. Off I go, in a hurry to get this done already.

At window 13, I met a kind middle-aged woman pecking away at her keyboard. I proudly announced my name and appointment time. The kind lady explained that I wasn’t “in line” (digitally speaking, of course). Although I was there early, I hadn’t responded to the text message quickly enough. I would need to rejoin the line.

She responded to the look of obvious befuddlement on my face by explaining further that someone with an appointment only has 40 seconds to get to the window before getting skipped.

Indignant, my tone of voice shifted, becoming annoyed and aghast. I insisted I’d been there the whole time, that I had an appointment.

In that moment, I saw the kind lady shift to become the stern-and-sick-of-your-attitude lady. Her cheeks flushed, and her posture stiffened. She said she believed me, but it didn’t matter because of their policy.

Only then did I realize that the negotiation had come and passed, and I lost without even putting up a fight. 

In a condescending tone she said, “Now, you’re going to stand and wait in that line right over there.” And she motioned, as if pointing me to the time-out chair.

I believe I could have saved the negotiation with a few simple strategies. But I was down and out and too embarrassed at my rookie mistake. I wasn’t on the lookout for my emotions, so they took me out of the game before I knew I was in it.

In a negotiation or conflict, our adversaries’ emotions can be their detriment and our benefit. But this is only true if we can manage our own emotions from the outset.  Kind Lady’s negative response to my appearance in her line made me feel stressed and anxious. Not only was I upset about maybe not being able to renew my license, but the situation in general just seemed unfair.

My defensive response then triggered her defensive response. Perhaps if I’d used an empathy-building tone and strategy, I could have maneuvered my way into an exception to the rule. In fact, I know I could have.

A downfall of many a negotiation is lack of preparation. I didn’t go into this situation prepared to deal with a conflict. I wasn’t ready for my defensive feelings, so what did I do? I sunk to my level of preparation: naked instinct.

Now, should we go around constantly prepared for conflict? Yes and no. We can’t prepare for every interaction that we might have. But we can build habits and life skills that help us in general situations.

Think what a difference it would have made if I had just paused for two seconds to think of a response.

Time is a powerful ally in negotiation. But the lack of time is an insurmountable foe.

How about if I’d said, “It’s going to seem like I’m just another irate customer.”

According to Chris Voss, this type of statement is an “emotional anchor.” It gets the other person prepared for the worst, so what follows won’t sound nearly as bad.

Another famous Chris Voss technique to follow, “How am I supposed to do that?”

Here, the lady must pause to consider your request. The pause and her consideration engages the logical portion of her brain. Her emotions fizzle out a bit as she considers how to solve my problem.

Now, it could very well be that she still wouldn’t be able to help me out 100%. But she could tell me what to do to get back in digital line, who to talk to, where to stand, etc. This could have played out any number of ways, almost any of which would have been better than what happened.

I know you all are wondering whether I’m driving around on an expired license. I’m not. Everything worked out because another kind lady took pity on me and helped out tremendously.

And just for good measure (not to mention good karma), before I left, I thanked both ladies for being rock stars!

Remember, the negotiation can be upon you at any time, so start building habits to address those unexpected conflicts.

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Disrupt Education: Negotiation and Problem Solving

Is society teaching its up and comers to negotiate?

High school, college, and graduate students are all taught a variety of substantive skills: math, science, technology, literature, and others. But does the next generation know how to communicate effectively? Do they know how to negotiate to get what they want yet still meet the needs of their counterparts?

The answer isn’t so clear. Negotiation consultants, mediators, and conflict coaches all too often see people unwilling or unable to communicate effectively with one another. (It makes me wonder: Were they ever taught how??)

WDR wants to disrupt this, to change the way society educates its students. WDR wants to help students at every level develop the skills to communicate effectively, listen actively, and negotiate collaboratively!

The kicker is that the basic concepts aren’t hard to learn. They may be a little uncomfortable to work with at first, especially in the face of a seemingly contentious conflict. To misquote an old adage, ” Not everything that’s hard will be worth it, but I’m damn sure everything that’s worth it will be hard.”

Learning and practicing conflict management skills at an earlier age means that, later on (when it counts), students will already have the foundational habits to be highly effective, no matter what their walk of life is.

The key to building negotiation and conflict skills is, of course, practice. But it’s more than that. Students of conflict and negotiation need to start small and build their repertoire bit by bit. It’s easy to take on a huge overhaul, fail, and then give up. Starting small and working up takes more time, but it produces better and more consistent results.

WDR needs your help. Share this post with your friends in education. We need to start disrupting education. We want to give short, engaging seminars on negotiation and problem solving to high schools, community colleges, and universities. We want to help students and recent graduates earn the so-called “soft skills” needed to make a huge difference in their lives. Pass the word on for the opportunity to host a low-cost, engaging seminar!



Automatic Mediaton in Michigan?

Michigan House Bill 5073 of 2017, would require mediation for civil litigation with over $25,000 in damages and for contested probate proceedings. The bill specifically excludes domestic relations cases from automatic mediation.

For further discussion, Lee Hornberger has written numerous general articles on arbitration and mediation. On his website, he’s featuring a whitepaper on automatic mediation by Mary A. Bedikian.

This has the potential to affect attorneys, ADR practitioners, litigants, and others. Stay informed, and contact your legislator with thoughts, concerns, or support.

Contact WDR to discuss further, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Business Lunch Story

Call to Action: Prepare then proceed. Before charging into a negotiation or dispute, take a few minutes to outline your goals. List what the other party might be concerned about— the holdups— so you can be responsive to those concerns.

Why: To reap the benefits of careful planning, rather than suffering the consequences of off-the-cuff responses.   

Remember: Conflict skills are developed over time. The sooner you start working on them in real-life situations, the sooner you’ll get better at it.

Case Study:

Roger and I met for lunch. Roger was having difficulty with a situation at his workplace. He asked my advice on what he should do when confronted with a workplace conflict.

Roger was on contract directly for Pete. However, Mike, Pete’s business partner, had also come to expect Roger’s help whenever he requested it. The assignments for Mike were outside Roger’s core competencies.

These new duties made Roger incredibly frustrated, negatively impacting the way he viewed his work. Although Roger completed these tasks with his usual flare for quality work, they weren’t in line with Roger’s professional development.

Roger sought advice from trusted friends and family. From their perspective, Roger had two options: black and white.

On the one hand, Roger could suck it up and deal with it. This was a great business opportunity for Roger. By partnering with a prominent business man, Roger enhanced his own brand and reputation.

On the other hand, Roger could cut and runmove along to greener pastures. This theory assumed that Pete would still be a resource for Roger. If not, then Roger would have to find new work and new references. But what if this move damaged Pete and Roger’s relationship? Would Roger’s reputation recover?

Roger’s third option, as he saw it, was to march into Pete’s office and insist on no longer doing tasks for Mike.  Roger felt utterly insulted by Mike and couldn’t even stomach the idea of addressing him directly. Roger envisioned this as his best option. It would allow him to work with Pete, uphold his reputation, and avoid further complications from Mike.

See any problem?

As a neutral player in the situation, it seemed like a timeout was in order. Roger’s business relationship with Pete and Pete’s expertise were invaluable to Roger in many ways. Realistically, refusing work, even for a legitimate reason, could rub an employer the wrong way.

I wanted Roger’s conversation with Pete to be productive and empathetic. I asked Roger a few questions to develop that theme. Roger knew he couldn’t risk alienating Pete, a key player in Roger’s budding career. Yet Roger couldn’t bear the stress and waste of time working with Mike.

Seemingly in a catch 22, Roger wondered whether there was another way. There was. After brainstorming, Roger felt it made the most sense to focus on his work consistent with his professional development—the work he’d been hired to perform in the first place. Time doing that would mean less time on task with Mike. And he wouldn’t have to mention his frustration with Mike to pull it off. This solution allowed Roger to set boundaries without alienating his colleagues.

After our brief discussion, Roger left, confident that he had a solid foundation on which to base the conversation. Neither Pete nor Mike need be any the wiser.

I’m happy to report that Roger resolved his issue in the manner that we discussed. The rationale spoke for itself. By delivering his message with empathy and poise, Roger’s point was well received.

With preparation and practice, Roger will continue to develop professionally and earn a reputation as a level-headed colleague that collaborates and looks for value in situations. Think this is unrealistic? Just take one small action step in your own life and see how Roger’s experience benefits you.

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Hot off the Press: WDR Featured in Huffington Post

Huffington Post’s Yvonne Heimann and Sarah Snyder included comments by WDR Founder Brandon Grysko in their respective articles.

50 Leadership Lessons from the School of Hard Knocks

As a service provider and a business owner, it’s so important to show up, but that’s not enough. Show up the right way, the hard way. How to do that? Show up looking to give, not looking to get.

Do this enough, and life will give it all back, plus some.

10 Examples Where a Compromise Led to a Great Outcome in Business

Compromising with one’s self is sometimes necessary to build collaborative relationships. By acknowledging and dealing with emotions away from the bargaining table, one avoids abrasively negotiating in a “shoot from the hip” approach.
When you negotiate from empathy, people are more likely to want to make a deal with you!

Check out the full articles and let us know what you think!

Special thanks to Brāv’s Remi Alli for collaborating with WDR on these pieces.

WDR wants to use your feedback to create valuable content, so drop us a line. Sign up for our email list to stay current on WDR’s content.

Don’ts for Negotiating Difficult Conversations

The Takeaway: Difficult, high-stress conversations can be addressed using negotiation principles. Buy yourself time, acknowledge concerns, gather more information, and diffuse the situation.

Take Action: Just once today, ask an open-ended question to get more information before responding. As with anything, these skills take time and practice to develop. Start small now for long-term success.

When people think negotiations, they often think sales, law, contracts, and other back-and-forth transactions. Negotiation is just about deals, right? Wrong. Negotiation principles apply to navigating conflicts and disputes, too.

In difficult, high-stress conversations, it’s really important to know what not to say, because the wrong cues will fan the flames and erode the productivity of the conversation.

Before we get into it, take a second and think. Is the overall goal to personally win the encounter? Or would you rather get to a place of mutual understanding and collaboration?

Quick Hint: If your goal is to achieve a personal victory, you might want to look into some conflict coaching for personal and professional development. It’ll make you a better communicator, leader, and negotiator.

The Don’ts

Don’t Go in Unprepared

Whether it’s your boss or a family member, you probably have a sense for the person’s mood. If you can figure ahead of time that it’s going to get rocky, take time to mentally prepare. If you’re low on energy, grab a healthy snack. If you know what ticks the person off, consciously plan to avoid those subject areas. Don’t have to jump through hoops; just don’t poke the bear!

Don’t Commit (at least not right away)

It might be tempting to automatically say “How can I help you?” And that’s a perfectly normal response. As people, we don’t like conflict and want to do what we can to avoid or reduce it. But be careful! Without any information on the deeper issue, you might get requisitioned for something you never meant to sign up for.

Don’t Escalate

What are you so mad about? What’s the big deal? What’s got you bent out of shape?

These aren’t legitimate questions. You aren’t fooling anyone. They’re escalators. You usually know why the other person is mad (or at least have some idea). Just for asking, you’ll probably get an earful that you really didn’t want.

Remember the last time someone asked you this type of question? Did you calm down? Did a lightbulb go off, and all of a sudden, you were able to clearly articulate the problem? I’m guessing not.

Don’t React

In fact, don’t give any response. Buy yourself time. More time = more distance = more options. Stepping out or leaving the room can be helpful. But it isn’t always possible. For example, you can’t just walk out on your boss, can you?

But you can create some mental and emotional space, just by taking a deep breath. Instead of a gut reaction, try a measured response.

Putting it into Action:

[Don’t React] Take a deep breath and think for a moment. Just one moment’s pause can make the critical difference. Think: What emotion am I seeing? Can I phrase it on the lighter side? Your momentary pause won’t look as awkward as it feels. And your calm response is well worth the short wait.

[Don’t Escalate] “I understand that you’re really frustrated over _______.”

That was an easy statement to make, requiring no knowledge or experience with whatever actually has them upset. It lacks judgement and doesn’t condemn the person for his or her emotions.

[Don’t Commit] “Can you describe the issue more specifically?”

Here, you aren’t committed to any specific action. But you are gathering critical information that can help you decide where you might assist or whether you should commit.

Once the issue is articulated, you’re in a better position to explore options. However, buy yourself more time. If the person is still amped up, it will be difficult to continue a productive conversation. Once you’ve deflected the initial onslaught, you can consider putting the problem off.

“I understand that you’re concerned about _________. Would you like to set up a time to talk about whether [I, my team, my department, my company, etc] can support you?”

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Build Better Labor-Management Relationships: Start with your own Team

Build positive relationships with the other “side” by first working on the weak links in your own team.

The Down and Dirty: Sometimes negative perceptions, disciplinary issues, and repeat offenders within your team require a different, more calculated approach.

Why Bother? Because the team member, employee, negotiator (whatever the role) won’t be effective unless taught how to manage those perceptions and communicate effectively.

The Takeaway: Consider coaching when there’s that one guy or gal that can’t seem to get along, even after repeatedly told the error of his or her ways and even after experiencing some negative consequences. Anyone can be a conflict coach. Give it a shot before looking to hire it out.

The Story:

We’ll call him Roger. Roger is a good employee and works hard to get the job done. Roger is young and full of fire, though. He also likes to socialize and is relatively informal with senior peers, supervisors, and management.

Minor flaws in performance or style are generally overlooked as long as the most important work is getting done. Naturally, Roger was surprised when he got sat down by his supervisor and chewed out over a pretty minor issue with how he handled a task, even though the result was net positive.

Management seemed to be picking on him. The union was concerned that management was soon to bring formal discipline. Roger came to me upset and frustrated.

No one likes to be attacked or confronted with a statement of guilt or fault. That type of approach is likely to generate anxiety and a defensive response. So how did I get Roger to focus on the solution without getting defensive?

I had Roger acknowledge the facts and perceptions. After Roger told me about a couple of similar situations, I asked him, “Roger, why do you think the supervisors continue with these sit-down meetings about minor issues?” Roger said something like, “Well, these issues are all pretty minor, and I’m doing the work and getting good results!”

“Roger, what if these minor issues are only coming up because of something else. What else might they be concerned about?”

“I’ve heard rumors that they think I’m cocky! But that’s ridiculous! I’m just trying to be friendly! I guess I just won’t talk to anyone from now on.”

Just by getting Roger to acknowledge the perception that he’s cocky, he begins to see a path forward. He sees how his behaviors connect to those perceptions, even though he still doesn’t think they’re accurate. From here, I used coaching and mediation principles so Roger could develop a measurable strategy to reduce the perception of his cockiness. Roger’s plan included measurable body language and verbal communication shifts. Importantly, I encouraged Roger to start with just a couple small changes. Too much change is overwhelming. Building momentum by starting small is critically important.

Here’s the kicker: It isn’t a one-n-done approach. Roger gets to go test out his theory, build momentum, and revisit the issue to develop and test new theories for even bigger results. When you’re perceived as being cocky or arrogant, it’s hard to shake. But people are surprisingly quick to notice change, even a small one. So from the very first action step, Roger was already chipping away at his image and building a new one.

What’s the impact, though?

  • Roger wins at a personal level with reduced stress and anxiety and better work relationships.
  • The union is less likely to represent Roger for formal disciplinary charges, including associated costs like arbitration.
  • Management has a better workplace culture and reduces their chances of grievance arbitration plus associated costs. Not to mention, front-line management can spend less time on conflict and more time dealing with productivity issues.

The true benefit of conflict management lies in time: Less time spent on conflict means more time doing the work and building the relationships that truly matter for business. Ultimately, if you want a better or different relationship with the other “side,” then start from within!

Get Rid of What Makes you Weak

Call to action: Can you get rid of one thing today that makes you weak? A sugary soda, an unhealthy food, a poisonous resentment??

Stress and anxiety in human beings lead to defensive behaviors. As you can imagine, this is a major complication when interacting with other people… like in the workplace, for example.

Getting rid of just one small thing that weakens you will help promote workplace harmony and reduce the cost of conflict.

A thousand small steps will get you farther than the one big step you never took.

The Slip


SLIPPERY WHEN WET! Beware the slippery slope of focusing on the past. Photo credit to Skitter Photo 

Recently, I mediated a dispute. Beforehand, I did some research. I looked up a couple of articles by well-known experts in the field. I wanted to get ideas on how to ask the very best questions to really get both sides thinking of interests rather than positions.

Right away, I could feel the frustration from one side. The plaintiff was owed some money for a period of time. The defendant stopped communicating about why the payment wasn’t forthcoming.

Then the defendant spoke, and I could instantly tell, he knew he owed the money. The heart of the dispute wasn’t really in dispute. He was at a loss. He felt like his insurance company should have covered him. But they didn’t because he was feuding with them over a (wrongfully?) cancelled policy.

The defendant clearly articulated that he was confused about what to do and didn’t have a clear idea of what his legal rights were. Further, he didn’t have the money up front because his income was tied up in commissions that hadn’t yet been paid.

The offer: Defendant acknowledged that he owed the money and felt bad about the whole situation. He offered 40% more than the plaintiff was asking for. In return, defendant wanted a release of liability and 60 days to pay.

The counteroffer: Plaintiff berated the defendant. The plaintiff’s frustration over the lack of communication boiled over. Plaintiff accused the defendant of being irresponsible and unwilling to make any sacrifices to make good on obligations.

As the mediator, I redirected and refocused the discussion. I made it clear to the defendant that the plaintiff was frustrated over the lack of communication over a long period of time, while reality checking the plaintiff to show her that this line of “discussion” was going nowhere fast.

It was for naught. The damage had already been done, and anyways, the plaintiff was unwilling to let go of the past and focus on the 40% increase she had gained for herself.

The result: Defendant shut down, went into fight-or-flight mode. It was a visible change in demeanor, from open and willing to insulted and disrespected.

That’s how an easy settlement gave me The Slip. But with every experience, I’m learning and growing as a professional. I can’t say the same for my wayward disputants.

Fellow mediators and conflict management professionals: what could I have done differently?

Disputants, do you see how focusing on past behavior may run contrary to your own interests?

What are those pain points?

Challenge: Can you be an innovative leader by having just one conversation with an employee this week to try and identify an internal pain point?

If you’re an innovative leader in your organization, are you gathering data from your employees?

The challenge of being an innovator is that you can’t see or hear about a pain point without wanting to do something about it.

Too often, organizations aren’t proactive in identifying their own internal pain points. WDR is currently conducting a survey to find out just what those pain points might be.

It’s too soon to tell, but so far, the data shows that leaders, managers, HR professionals, and others are reporting that workplace conflict tends to stem from the failure of communication- specifically, top-down communication about the goals and direction of the organization.
Call to action:

Will you acknowledge conflict in your organization? Will you identify it, and TAKE ACTION to do something about it?

Where to start? 

Can you just talk to one employee this week? Can you have just one candid conversation about the workplace to try and identify an internal pain point?