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ASK THE MEDIATOR: Don't just ignore the smelly elephant in the room

By Amy Agronis on June 6, 2003 in University

Question: I work in a lab as a technician. I participated in mediation with three of my co-workers (also technicians) recently, and we have tried to develop a way to communicate with each other better. We had been having lots of fights and silent treatment over the last few years and things had gotten really bad. After the mediation it seemed like things might get better. We agreed to try to use a more direct approach with each other when we were mad or upset.

The problem is that the rest of the lab staff are still doing what we're trying NOT to do -- gossiping, back-biting, complaining about each other. It's really hard not to participate, especially when it's your work friends. I don't want them to think I've turned snobby. I'm not sure how long our new approach is going to last. Should I complain to the supervisor to make them stop?

Answer: What is your desired outcome? I'm understanding that you want two things to happen: A -- to maintain your friendships at work; and B -- to work in an environment that uses a healthy communication style. You're afraid that if you pursue B you'll lose A. Let's analyze this using the "five options" approach.

Option 1 -- Do nothing. This approach generally allows prevailing norms to continue prevailing. In this case, the undesirable communication patterns (everyone's habitual behavior) will eventually overwhelm the four technicians' efforts to use different behaviors. You may get A but not B.

Option 2 -- Change the situation. Transfer to a different department. Move to a different shift. Win the lottery and retire. You may get A and B by changing the circumstances. But it's not always a realistic option.

Option 3 -- Change your thinking. Change your desired goals. Consider whether you really want to achieve both A and B. Decide you care more about A than B, or vice versa, and pursue that one goal. Or stop viewing A and B as mutually incompatible and actively pursue them both, which means you have to get some cooperation from others, leading us to options 4 and 5.

Option 4 -- Engage the other with force. Make the others in the department change their behavior to meet your needs. Let's see, what power do you have to do that? You could bring authority down on their heads (e.g., a supervisor, the grievance process, the law). You could bring social pressure to bear (write graffiti about them in the restroom, form a "we hate them" camp, give them the silent treatment). You may get B but I think you'll ruin your chances of getting A.

Option 5 -- Engage the other In problem-solving. (Why do we usually try this last?) Let the others in the department know that you want A and B and ask for their ideas in how to achieve it. Find out what they want. Offer your ideas as to how to achieve their desired outcomes. I know, I know. You're thinking, "I can't possibly bring up in a staff meeting that I think our communication patterns are unhealthy. Everybody would hate me for saying that."

It's not unusual for people to censor themselves, to feel that it's OK to want something secretly (or tell only a few folks), but not OK to let the world in general know. I say, if you want something then it's OK to discuss it. Granted, you need to be tactful about how you raise the issue, but raising it is useful and healthy. Pretending it doesn't exist is like pretending there isn't a dead, stinking elephant in the corner of the room. Everyone smells it, no one likes it, but everyone is too polite to discuss it. I almost always vote for naming the elephant and joining forces to take care of it.

By the way, you can bring in a mediator or facilitator to help your group have an elephant-naming and problem-solving conversation. That's what we do.

Ask The Mediator is written by Sally Waters, senior mediator at UC Davis Mediation Services. Faculty, staff and graduate students may send in questions to be answered in this column at The identity of senders is kept confidential. For more information about mediation services, call (530) 752-9257 or check

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,