How to Use Non-Confrontational Mediation for Disagreements on Projects

By: John Prichard

While, in a perfect world, every team member would fully approve a project plan, we know that’s never the case. When you’re managing a project, you’ll encounter push-back on plans, roadblocks to approaches, and wishlists for new ideas to implement. This makes for ample opportunity for disagreements to arise.

The sooner you handle these disagreements, and the more diplomacy you inject into the situation, the smoother the rest of the project should go.

The Truth About Disagreements

The fact is: most disagreements are about minor things, and are rarely about real problems. They’re often based on conjecture, opinion, or team dynamics. But as the project manager, your role is that of a mediator and you’ve got to find a path to resolving disagreements amongst teams or Grumblers in a diplomatic way.

As that mediator, you are the guardian of the plan, and it is your priority. It’s not about one team getting its demands; it’s about the project as a whole succeeding. 

Steps to Resolving Disagreements Between Stakeholders

Like any mediator, you’ve got to find a process to resolve issues in a way that, while some may become unhappy if their needs aren’t met, will at least satisfy general constraints and keep the project moving forward.

Step 1: Plead Ignorance

You are, of course, not dumb, but you should act as if you are to let the team member with the objection explain exactly what the issue is. Take the “you’re the expert” attitude and let them walk you through the problem.

Step 2: Get the Facts

There’s no room for emotion in a non-confrontational mediation. As Joe Friday said, “just the facts, ma’am.”

Make sure to get the non-subjective parts of the disagreement on paper. If someone in IT says it’s absolutely impossible to get to a deliverable within three weeks, get an understanding of why that is. What other constraints are keeping her from being able to hit that milestone?

Go deep here. There should be no “blind items”, i.e. general vagueness that doesn’t address the person or details that are a part of the issue that needs to be addressed. People often don’t want to point fingers or make others (or themselves) look bad, so they’ll skirt the details. Don’t allow it. You’re looking for a logical base of truth to help you identify the problem so you can find the best path forward.

Step 3: Identify the Problem Statement

Now that you’re armed with details on the problem, create a cohesive problem statement that addresses what problem are we trying to solve and what factors and/or people are involved.

You may find that some team members want to skip forward to solutioning, but it’s important to take the time to identify the problem and clarify it for everyone involved.

Don’t be afraid to ask directly what the problem is. You may get a different answer from different individuals. Employ active listening to ensure you take the problem statement down correctly.

Realize, too, that you might have multiple issues, and that these may require different solutions. You might have two non-controversial issues, and just one minor disagreement. For example: maybe everyone agrees on the timetable and resources, but they’re still in disagreement about the project platform.

Step 4: Capture the Preferred Course of Action

Now that everyone is aligned on the problem statement, it’s time to decide what should be done about it.

Be on the lookout for the attitude “someone else should fix this.” People often don’t want to take ownership, yet they want a solution. Look for people who are willing, ready, and able to get involved in solving the problem.

Ask what considerations there might be for the preferred course of action. That might require collecting some detail around the proposal, such as whether you need more dollars, people, technology, or something else. This step is in preparation for getting things on the plan.

Step 5: Review 

Now is the time to review the facts and problem statement with all parties to make sure the whole team is operating from the same place. It doesn’t necessarily mean everyone agrees, but they should have an understanding of the path the project will take.

Have a course of action for the preferred outcome. Start with something, even if it doesn’t end up being the final solution, otherwise you open the door for too much back-and-forth between adversaries.

And still, you may have people trying to throw stones during this review stage. This is where exposing “bad actors” to leadership can help you work through objections if you’re not making progress. If you can’t walk out with a decision, you need to escalate the objections to a higher-level decision-maker within your governance structure.

On a recent project, there was an example of such a dissident during this review stage. An IT lead said a certain milestone couldn’t be reached so the project manager invited him to present his reasoning to the project lead. Not to anyone’s surprise, that invitation squashed the complaint.

Escalating an objection gives project managers a graceful way to withdraw that objection without losing face. It also teaches team members that they can’t just throw bombs and expect results; they must defend their requirements if they want them heard.

You should expect to have challenging team members that aren’t cooperative or forthcoming. They may make unrealistic demands on the project for certain deadlines or the hiring of more people. But know that they’re just reacting to an uncomfortable situation. They’re stressed. They need a mediator. 

Teams need to be given leadership support to work the problem in a kind and considerate manner that demonstrates that every team member is being heard and that every real problem is relevant. But it needs to be about the facts, and you must communicate that finding a solution requires compromise.  When you arm yourself with the facts, a clear problem statement and solution options, and then identify a likely path forward, you can successfully resolve those honest disagreements for the betterment of the project.