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How to Achieve Conflict Resolution in Workplace with Nance Schick

Written by:

Esther is a business strategist with over 20 years of experience as an entrepreneur, executive, educator, and management advisor.

How to Achieve Conflict Resolution in Workplace with Nance Schick

We had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with the amazing Nance L. Schick, an esteemed lawyer specializing in workplace conflict resolution and mediation. She is the founder of Third Ear Conflict Resolution and the author of DIY Conflict Resolution, where she helps employers and employees solve their issues without a lengthy and expensive court battle and realize that they can have a mutually beneficial relationship.

In her practice, Nance heavily relies on her understanding, empathy, and ability to recognize problematic behaviors that stem from unfortunate life experiences and address them adequately. As a trauma-informed lawyer and a strong and brave (business) woman, Nance explains how her personal experiences have paved the path she walks today, sheds light on the most common points of conflict in the workplace, and so much more. There is a whole treasure trove of wisdom to be unearthed, so let’s dig in!

Holistic Law in Workplace Conflict Resolution

SBS – Can you describe what holistic law entails in the context of workplace conflict resolution?

Nance – Holistic law is a term that some of us practitioners use to integrate a lot of different disciplines into our law practice. It’s one of the many ways we can describe it (some call it integrative or renaissance law).

Ultimately, we’re trying to communicate to our clients that we will look not just at the legal issue but also the root causes — such as implicit bias and insufficient training. The goal is not to place blame and punish the parties to the dispute, although sometimes that is warranted. If we can help you resolve that issue so that you don’t repeat it (even beyond the law), we’re going to use our skills and experience to do that. It’s a more complete approach.

In the context of workplace disputes, and especially nowadays with globalization, where everyone’s connected, it’s just so much more important because people will go back and work together, if not in the same company, probably in the same industry. The goal is to help people work through it and complete that whole cycle of the conflict to a complete resolution so they can be together again. Maybe you’re not going to work together anymore or have drinks together after work, but you can still resolve it to the extent that you recognize the humanity in each other. Moving forward with as much healing and power as possible for everyone involved is precisely what we work toward. It’s a very unique perspective in the grand scheme of law.

However, not every client is looking for that. There are clients whose whole goal is to dominate and defeat the other person. By being self-employed, I get to choose the clients I work with, and that’s a lovely benefit, especially 20 years in. I know there are some disputes, and some people just live their lives that way. I don’t think that’s the most beneficial for everyone because we see what’s going on in the world when people just keep turning the tables. You think you have a resolution and an endpoint, but it doesn’t really resolve anything if people don’t walk away from it feeling complete and ready to move on. I try to get them to that point where maybe there’s still some residual stuff (because we, as humans, always carry things around with us from long ago), but that’s no longer influencing and impacting their future. We try to leave the past where it is and talk about the future. Let’s work with what we can control. It’s a life skill. People take home those skills that we use in there and that we’re building, and they don’t always think about it that way because we like to think work and home are separate.

The other thing I focus 100% on in my practice now is keeping people out of court. This is what I explain to people when they first talk to me. When you’re going to court, you’re effectively saying, “I’m an adult, and the other person is an adult, but we can’t decide how to resolve this. So we want you, somebody who doesn’t know us, to tell us what we deserve and how we should fix things.” I facilitate a conversation so that they can come together. I’m not judging it. I’m not saying who gets what. I listen for opportunities to help them come together. I also have a trauma background, so I’m experienced in that, and I’ve had my own training as well.

One of the things we know now through neuroscience is that when your stress level gets up here, most people will take no action, or they get into this cycle of doing the same thing over and over. When you’re in that emotional spiral, you just keep triggering the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for the fear response). So, I try to pull that stress level down. Usually, it’s just by listening to them, acknowledging and validating them, and being with them so they can feel safe to work through whatever’s going on so that the fear response doesn’t get triggered. Once we can get them to that level, we can have conversations and remind them that each is a person. They aren’t trying to hurt each other. Something just went wrong in the relationship, so let’s just talk about what happened in an objective way and what needs to happen going forward. Usually, the conflict comes from unmet expectations that weren’t expressed. It’s the same thing that happens with marriage or a relationship.

At times, somebody will get a little aggravated during mediation, or another one will be very aloof. I’ve had situations where somebody’s crying in mediation, and the other person just goes stone-cold, and I recognize that as a human response to something they’re uncomfortable with. I can look at that person being aloof, and I understand they’re just being human and having their response. So how do I just move them both past it? Sometimes, it’s by taking a break so this person can cry it out, and this other person can talk to me about why they’re so stone-faced. You can’t always reach people, but you work with them where they are and get them to align again in some way, even if they don’t resolve the whole dispute, they can at least have new tools moving forward. That’s what mediation is all about.

That’s why in mediation with attorneys, I tell the attorneys up front that I will ask the parties to do most of the talking. I’m not here to hear the narrative the attorneys want me to hear because I’m not judging the facts. I’m bringing the parties together. It’s a completely different process that I find so much more effective in resolving a dispute and building those life skills.

In the workplace, I’ve been advising people, some that have gotten laid off recently, where I’m not mediating the dispute but having them discuss their severance package with their employer, do that exit interview, and get what they need to move forward. It’s the same skill of just acknowledging that we’re dealing with human beings. Things happen that have human beings not like each other or blame each other for things. A lot of times, it’s just life.

Essential Advice for Business Owners

SBS – What is the key piece of legal advice that you would offer business owners, regardless of the size of their organization? What can they do if they are in situations they cannot resolve?

Nance – Develop relationships with attorneys early. Over the course of your business, you will need competent counsel on business transactions, employee issues, intellectual property, taxation, and more. Many of us are happy to work with you on a proactive and as-needed basis. 

From a purely legal perspective, if you don’t have willing parties for mediation, you’re looking at litigation. When we often start talking to both sides about the cost of litigation, I tell them to do a cost-benefit analysis, not just about the money (because litigation is expensive), but also about the time and energy cost. If you’re a small business owner and you’re one of the owners that are working in the business as well as on the business (working side by side with your employees), and you have to pull yourself out to go to court for depositions and produce documents to prepare for the litigation, that has a cost as well.

People often don’t understand what’s going to happen in litigation, and attorneys aren’t always great at explaining how much it’s going to cost. That’s why the first thing I would do is do a very thorough cost-benefit analysis. In New York City, for example, it’s not unusual that I try cases that are many, many years old. People think, “I’ll file a lawsuit and get a decision.” Well, this isn’t Law & Order. You’re not going to get a decision. It’s going to be years. Litigation, even a small one, will probably cost $10,000 in legal fees.

I didn’t give you a legal answer per se because I can’t give legal advice in an interview. I can only give general information, but one piece of conflict resolution advice or a tip for employers is my big focus for the year. It’s my passion — looking at employment as a mutually beneficial partnership.

We tend to go with the traditional ways of thinking about work, where it’s more of a master-servant relationship, where the employer is the master and the employee is the servant and does what the master says in exchange for money. But employees are so much more savvy these days, especially in places like New York, where we have a lot of resources to educate our employees. Employees know their rights. They are starting to think about personal branding and understand that the business has goals, a vision, and a brand.

Again, My role is to bring employers and employees together in partnership toward mutually beneficial goals instead of employers suffering because they have to hire employees or employees suffering because they have to work for someone else. You all came together. You, the employer, do an interview. You, as an employee, apply. As an employer, you choose who you want to interview. Think of it as a partnership and of what you can create together. You both saw something in the relationship, just like any other relationship you get into — except for maybe your parents and siblings, that you don’t get to choose. But in an employment setting, you both decided to do this, so stop acting like you don’t want to do it and find something beautiful to create together. 

Mediation Techniques for Effective Conflict Resolution

SBS – Can you share some effective mediation techniques that businesses can use?

Nance – I think it starts with defining the conflict very succinctly, and that’s the very first thing that I often ask them to do. I typically use the framework of the other person, so I might say, “X and I disagree about Y.” It may be in an employment setting or a disagreement about whether someone’s doing a good job (a performance issue).

When you start there, you can talk about what your definition of a good job is and what’s theirs. It takes the personal conflict out of it because we have a tendency to want to simplify it. Again, this is all brain stuff going on because our brains are not equipped to help us in the worlds we live in. We have a lot of ineffective brain patterns that want to simplify this and say this person’s either good or bad, no gray area.

We can discuss what kind of performance the employer needs, why they need it, and what the employee has been doing. About 95% of the time, in that kind of conversation, I find out that the employee just needs a little more support because they don’t understand how to do the job. They haven’t gotten proper training and don’t have the right tools, but they have too many demands and haven’t learned to prioritize them. All of that is fixable. 

Insights from DIY Conflict Resolution

SBS – From your book DIY Conflict Resolution, could you suggest a key strategy for business owners?

Nance – I just gave you the first step, the first action of the five actions. But before that, I ask my clients to make seven choices. It’s kind of an extension of the concept of counting to ten. Counting to 10 is a good start, but it’s usually not enough to help you listen effectively, and listening is where all the magic occurs. Counting to ten when your emotions are high doesn’t bring you down here because our brains want more than a break. They want direction and to be able to focus, and if you can focus them, then you can move forward.

First, I tell them to forgive themselves for having conflict. Eventually, the more you do the seven choices, the more your brain forms new patterns and moves you through them. Often, people get fearful because they may realize employers aren’t trained to acknowledge that they made a mistake. Just forgive yourself for making mistakes (because things happen in business). Because if you’re risking things and you’re a trailblazer, there’s no path ahead of you. You’re creating it. So, of course, you’ll make mistakes along the way.

That’s exactly why I wrote the book; the back part of it is largely just a workbook, and it’s to take the tools and apply them to different areas of your life, so you’re again forming new brain patterns that are going to be more effective in resolving conflicts when they arise. We cannot avoid all conflicts, and most of us have been taught to try to avoid them. I’m a person that says, “Don’t go creating them.” The more skill you have in moving through it, the less fearful you’ll be, and if you have less fear, you take more risks — and risks are required in business. Risks are in everything, even in meeting a personal partner that you might want to marry or have kids with. Risks are in business search. You have to take the risk of reaching out to them and expressing your interest in them when you apply for a business.

I think it puts us in a much more powerful position to build these skills and to have more of a say in our lives, and that’s one of the things most of us want. That’s, again, why I am 100% committed to keeping people out of court now. I think going to someone else is almost childlike, like when kids go to the parent and say, “He hit me, so punish him,” instead of saying, “You hit me. That’s not appropriate, and now you need to do something to make amends for that.” It teaches us to stand up for ourselves. It teaches us how to work through conflict and be in harmony with each other. People will come into conflict because we’re all very different, and none of us has experience in everything we will face in life. So the first time you do anything, you’re going to probably stumble.

Being fearless is another thing that I think we misinterpret. “Fearless” is exactly what it sounds like. You fear less. You still will have fears because you’ll be confronted, and that’s okay. You’ll have less fear of things you’ve confronted before because now you know how to move through them. That’s what having conflict resolution skills is all about — empowering you. 

It just so happens that I do it in the workplace, and I teach these skills through mediation. That’s one place where I know I can reach many people because everybody has a job, has had a job, knows someone with a job, or wants to have a job. It’s one thing that brings everybody together. Because we’re so different and doing different things and jobs, there will be conflict, and that’s okay. I’m not concerned that I will resolve so much conflict in the world that I will put myself out of business. Because I’ve met people and I know how they work.

Enhancing Conflict Resolution Skills through Training Programs

SBS – How do your training programs enhance conflict resolution skills within businesses?

Nance – I use what I call the KARR Method™:

  • Knowledge
  • Application
  • Reinforcement
  • Resolution

One-and-done, check-the-box training is insufficient, much like a fad diet. Conflict resolution becomes part of the culture. We learn about it, apply it to keep getting better at it, reinforce the most effective techniques, and resolve any new conflicts, understanding that new ones will always arise. That’s part of life.

Personal Influence on Conflict Resolution Approach

SBS – How has your personal experience influenced your approach to conflict resolution?

Nance – It’s no secret that I am a survivor of polyvictimization and a suicide attempt. I’m actually in a victimology book (Trauma-Informed Law), and I have frequently spoken to students of victimology about polyvictimization and what that is. It’s a way of expressing that some people become victims of crime more than once because of brain patterns that victimization forms. After that first crime (in my case, it was being abused as a child), I was sexually abused, then sexually abused more than once, then raped, then raped more than once.

For me, what oddly triggered everything in the shift around this and how I brought it into my work was being violently assaulted and injured on my way home from a peacemaking conference, of all things. That was when I wrote my book. I realized that, with the head injury, that book almost never came out of me. I’ve always wanted to contribute something to more peaceful experiences in the world and help people who were hurting.

I am what some people call “trauma-informed,” which means I can often recognize behaviors caused by traumatic experiences and delicately address them in ways that protect the psychological safety of the trauma survivors while also helping them align goals with others. I discovered that the young man who assaulted me was hurting, and I stood for him to get restorative justice and support. Restorative justice, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is like a mediation type in the criminal justice system. I was able to see that young man as a human being. Some of that I attribute to the training that I’ve had and the work that I’ve been doing in mediation and alternative dispute resolution. When I realized he was 14 years old, I immediately thought of where I was at 14 years old on a Sunday night. My instant thought was that something was going on in this young man’s life, which made him be out on the streets of New York doing what he was doing.

That was where I went with it because I knew I would be okay, physically and mentally. I did have to go through a recovery, but I recognized that he was getting off track, and if I could do something to intervene to try and get on a better track, I wanted to do it. In his particular case, he fled his sentencing and disappeared for about 18 months until he showed up in the system again after committing multiple crimes. That was a case where I extended the opportunity to him. He did not accept it, but I planted the seed.

It took a long time to get to the point where I’ve been healed enough, but I can say I wish well to other people who have harmed me, and I want them to turn their lives around. I think that’s a big part of the forgiveness process.

Forgiveness is one of the most important processes, and it’s not what society is really teaching us these days. It is teaching things like revenge, and that’s not new. Now more than ever, you look at the media we consume, and it’s so much about making ourselves look good and other people look bad. This competitive ridiculousness doesn’t allow us to live in harmony. We’re all just on our journey, and, as human beings, we are a little messy (sometimes a lot messy), and we’re just trying to figure out our way in the world.

To bring this back to talking to small business owners, I want to ensure we get into a couple of things. We talk about passion all the time, which is one of the things that makes small business owners successful: choosing to go into a business that leaves some legacy. It’s an expression of us as unique individuals trying to make a mark on the world.

But it’s not just about us. When you’re selling, you’re not just trying to force somebody to take something in exchange for their money. What you’re trying to do is help them solve a problem. We hear over and over and over that the best way to make a sale is to listen to what the person you’re talking to needs and try to help them find it. Sometimes that’s you, and sometimes it’s a resource you have.

We want some of the same basic things; we have the same basic needs, but our expression is different, so we’re not necessarily competing for the same things. Even when people compete for the same market or money, they’re not competing for the same reasons. There’s a lot of psychology that goes behind it. We can actually live in harmony.

I will admit that this is my contribution to making the world a little better for everybody. I guess you could say I am doing what I ask people to do at the end of each weekly video: I listen for the hurts I can heal, and I do my best to heal the ones I can, even in small ways like empowering people to work together more effectively.

Future Trends in Workplace Law and Conflict Resolution

SBS – What changes do you see in workplace law and conflict resolution that will happen in the near future? What do you think AI brings to your line of work? 

Nance – AI is going to cause panic and demands for new workplace protections. I’m not sure how many of those we will need or how effective they will be.

I think we’re going to continue to see the impact of AI, obviously. We’re already seeing a lot of layoffs in white-collar. It’s interesting because it’s mostly those jobs that are affected currently. There will be some other types of roles I’m sure that AI will impact, but I’m not convinced that it’s all gloom and doom. My partner is a computer programmer, and he is well-versed in AI. He has explained to me how it works, so that’s one thing I know — AI is still very limited in its effectiveness.

As far as conflict resolution is concerned, the tool we fear will replace us might instead increase our effectiveness in many challenging areas. We’re using it, for example, to train new mediators. They can have these exchanges with robots and see how that mediation process or technique might or might not work. That way, they’re getting a fuller view before they go into a mediation where they might screw it up when they’re new. Likewise, we can train lawyers, doctors, teachers, and others.

We have to realize that AI can be a tool to improve us. I’m reading Reid Hoffman’s book Impromptu right now. That’s all about how AI can increase our humanity. Robots aren’t going to be able to replace this, which is also why I think it’s more important than ever that we learn these conflict resolution skills and tap into the things that make us unique as human beings and distinct from robots. It will be long before a robot can feel compassion for a human being.

Also, remember that your fear will lessen the more you interact with the thing you fear. That’s the other process in mediation — we have you confront your fears in a safe environment so that you ease them, and then the next time you’re confronted with a fear, you’re a little less fearful. You will feel better. David J. Schwartz said that action cures fear!

For more valuable insight on workplace conflict mediation, visit Nance’s YouTube channel. We recommend you take a very close look at her eye-opening video on Sexual Assault Myths.


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How to Achieve Conflict Resolution in Workplace with Nance Schick