Basia Solarz has created and implemented an impressive transformative mediation program at the Health Authority in Nova Scotia. Here's her description of how she did it.

I work as a Conflict Transformation Specialist for Capital District Health Authority in Nova Scotia, Canada. In this role, I provide mediation, individual and group conflict coaching, and education & training services to the 12,000 people working in our organization. My colleagues in the Healthy Workplace Department created the Workplace Conflict Resolution Program (WCRP) in response to the results of an employee survey and abundant anecdotal evidence, which made it clear that unproductive conflict was having negative impacts on employees and patient care.

The primary purpose of the program is to support the development of conflict competence. Although the hiring committee was not familiar with transformative mediation before my interview, they became intrigued by its emphasis on party self-determination and the mediator’s non-directive approach. Seeing transformative mediation in action during the interview’s simulated mediation demonstrated the strong connection between supporting party self-determination and the promotion of conflict competence.

The focus on supporting party self-determination has indeed been transformative, both for the individuals involved as well as our organization. When people are supported to overcome their interactional crisis, they become more comfortable dealing with conflict and are more willing to do so in the future. They are also less likely to allow uncivil behaviours to go unchecked, which has contributed to a more constructive workplace culture.

Research is being conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and the preliminary results are promising. Staff and physicians are reporting that they feel better able to work through conflict as a result of transformative mediation and/or coaching. Anecdotal evidence is also encouraging. For example, employees who have been out of work on short-term illness leave (STI) due to conflict-related stress are now offered mediation and/or conflict coaching before going back to work so that they can return more quickly and feel better equipped to handle workplace conflict. In several cases, employees who were considering going out on STI and who participated in the program opted to stay at work instead. Critical projects which had been sidelined by conflict were able to get back on track following mediation. Very importantly, employees who are no longer preoccupied by conflict have been better able to offer timely and accurate delivery of treatments and medications to patients. Although the program was initially funded for one year under a grant, these kinds of successful outcomes contributed to the organization’s adoption of the WCRP program as a permanent program within the organization.

Last year, the program received a “Quality Worklife, Quality Healthcare” Award from the Health Association of Nova Scotia in recognition of its innovation and success in fostering a healthy workplace. From my perspective as a transformative mediator, the reason for its success is both its design and the fact that the services are offered in a manner which is congruent with the transformative framework.

The design combines the "strategic approach" with alternative dispute resolution practices and to our knowledge, this is the first time that these two leading-edge practices have been combined in a health care setting. The "strategic approach" includes coaching to help people work through conflict, enhance their own skills, and support better working relationships. As many readers of this blog will know, alternative dispute resolution uses tools and techniques like mediation and facilitation, to keep responsibility for resolving the conflict in the hands of the parties.

Workshops and conflict coaching groups help staff to develop their conflict resolution skills alongside their colleagues, which creates a "ripple effect" of learning throughout the organization. Participants tell us this fosters in-the-moment peer support when conflicts arise.

The fact that the program is situated in our Healthy Workplace Department rather than the Human Resources Department means that a significant barrier to accessing support has been eliminated because employees know that their participation will not be documented in their employment record. Three program principles ensure that people have “voice and choice:” participation is 1) voluntary, 2) confidential, and 3) cannot be used as part of a disciplinary process.

Work is central to so many people’s lives, so when conflict makes work miserable, a large part of people’s lives is miserable. This is why I feel so fortunate to be able to offer conflict transformation services in a workplace context—it really makes a difference.

I am able to do this because of the excellent training and support I received from the fellows of the Institute. I especially want to acknowledge Winnie Backlund, who not only trained me in this approach, but who offered ongoing encouragement and guidance in the program’s initial stages. It could not have happened without her.

Guest Blogger, Basia Solarz.

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