A map to mediation and conflict resolution
A fundamental approach to resolving conflict before discipline is required
In a field where members rely on each other to work on critical cases in tandem, to survey the scene to keep each other safe, and to lend a listening ear after a traumatic call, maintaining the integrity of the department and trust between members is essential. This EMS1 special coverage series identifies the top disciplinary issues facing EMS leaders and what they can do to prevent and mitigate bad behavior while preserving trust among the community and members.
Mediation and conflict resolution skills are imperative to those in EMS leadership and those still in the field. Discord between crew members can often affect day-to-day productivity, an employee's sense of wellbeing and even patient care.
EMS supervisors must hone an array of tactics to ensure that their system runs smoothly. From providing enough units in your system to managing communication for those in conflict. Ensuring that you are approachable, observant and assertive will allow you to manage conflict between crew members tactfully and confidently.
I had to learn how to feel OK leaning into the discomfort of navigating others' distress. It gets easier with practice. However, a warning: Not all conflict resolves. Know that your role is one of support, and do not place the expectation on yourself that you must be able to bring humans to peace in every disagreement you attempt to mediate. Be kind and patient with yourself, first and always.
Conflict – defined as an extended struggle, battle, clashing or disagreement – presents the opportunity for growth amongst all individuals involved. Mediation is a structured and interactive process hosted by a third party (in this case, you, as a leader) that can help you and your team experience growth. Conflict may occur between coworkers, supervisors, crew members, between patients and crew members, third-party agencies, or any combination of these.
I offer you a fundamental approach to mitigating issues between people before pursuing the more official channels for addressing conflict.
1. Intervene early
There are many moments in leadership where you will have the opportunity to witness the initial moment a conflict begins. Stepping in before a situation becomes completely unmanageable will allow the best option for you to mitigate and assist in resolving the dispute.
I have found that giving people undivided attention and allowing them to have uninterrupted space is key to decompressing most issues. Most of the individuals I have encountered throughout my time in leadership just needed an ear and a safe place to vent before they could come to a place where they could resolve an issue on their own or together.
Creating time and a safe space to speak one's mind is a critical skill that we as leaders must perform. My preference is to do my best to allow this space for all parties involved individually, intending to summarize and define the conflict.
3. Bring the conflicting parties together (or debrief separately)
I am a huge fan of structured meetings; they work for everything from strategic planning to employee reviews. After hearing the aggrieved parties out individually, I summarize and define the problem with them together. I set the scene for this by laying the structure for integrated communication. My essential rules are:
- No interrupting when someone is speaking
- Utilize only "I" statements
- Focus on the behavior and not the person
This basic framework allows all parties a safe and structured space to discuss the dispute at hand. Additionally, establishing this structure at the beginning of the group talk allows for the best possible opportunities to explore options to resolve the conflict.
Conversely, sometimes disputing parties choose not to come together after each has said their piece separately. In these cases, I do my best to summarize and define the problem with each party separately. The drawback to this approach, in my perception, is that it does not truly resolve the issue and can lead to further complex interactions amongst parties.
4. Make and communicate the resolution plan
Once opportunities for conflict resolution are defined, ensure that there is a plan in place to bring the conflict to resolution. All parties must understand the defined issues and the resolution plan; this is regardless of whether you can debrief them together or do it separately. Clearly defining the problem and the resolution allows individuals to create new behaviors and recognize those which may not serve them professionally.
Every person in EMS has heard – no matter how much time they have in the business – if you don't document it, it didn't happen. Document from initial contact through the resolution attempt. Follow your agency's protocols for documentation and make sure you are as detailed as possible. Accurate and precise documentation allows you and your leadership team space to address future issues should they arise.
Communication is key
Years ago, I stepped into a tense conversation between one of my EMT crew members and a charge nurse at one of our major local hospitals. Their voices were slightly raised and tight. Both individuals demonstrated body language consistent with irritation. Upon seeing me, the EMT pulled me aside to explain that he felt the charge nurse had been unprofessional and disrespectful toward him during his ring-down; he tried to address his perception of this issue by telling her so.
I then approached the charge nurse and gave her space to provide me with her experience of the situation. She alleged that the EMT had left out critical patient information she needed to provide to the trauma team before the patient's arrival.
I requested a group debrief, to which both parties agreed. I summarized what they had each told me and defined my perception of their problem. In this case, the patient was altered and critical, and the information the nurse was requesting was not available to the crew. The tone of voice was pivotal to the disagreement; both parties approached one another from blame during a stressful event.
Saying this out loud to them allowed them to see one another's points of view, talk about how they would like to communicate in the future, and let each of them take ownership over their behaviors and feelings. Both walked away feeling better about their interaction. I followed this successful event up with the appropriate documentation.
In no way is the situation I just presented to you all-inclusive. The small steps and insights provided here will allow you to begin managing workplace conflict. Perhaps you would like further information on leadership and navigating the many ways that little everyday battles play a role in routine management? I recommend reading “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict," by the Arbinger Institute, and “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” by Breńe Brown. Both books will assist in a further deep dive into developing yourself into the EMS leader you would love to be.
Conflict resolution: The secret to a successful team
Embracing conflict can help a fire/EMS organization’s team mature and increase organizational productivity