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Conciliation: art or science - Gill Dix

Wednesday 19 February 2014

High impact industrial action, like the recent dispute at London Underground, gets plenty of media coverage, and Acas gets its mention when the parties come to the table. This is especially the case when the dispute is resolved and action called to a halt. But little is known about the conciliation process itself - what it involves, and the part played by Acas.
Gill Dix

Gill Dix

Gill Dix is Head of Strategy at Acas.

As an analyst in Acas, I have interviewed the parties, and carried out multiple surveys, observed the process and spent hours with the conciliators. What's it all about, and is it a mysterious art or a clinical science?

The premise for conciliation is straightforward - to bring disputing parties to a safe place where discussion can take place, with Acas acting as a catalyst for making progress. Like all complex processes, we need a simple framework to help understand more. One that works well is to describe the conciliation process in three stages: understanding the parties' position and how they see the differences between themselves; exploring the options for getting a resolution; and focusing on getting a deal. Overly simple, but what do these steps involve?

Sometimes, the conciliator will begin with a joint meeting with both parties. This is to explain the ground rules for conciliation, and also to ask each party to give a brief summary of their position. But almost invariably, the conciliator will then ask parties to adjourn to separate rooms, and talk to each party in turn. In the language of the conciliators, this 'helps take the heat out of the situation'.

At this stage it's about establishing the background to the conflict, the issues in dispute and what is important for each party. This can be a time consuming, but important stage since it's about building trust and confidence between the conciliator and the parties. Each party will be encouraged to go over the history of the dispute from their own perspective to be sure that the conciliator is clear about exactly what the issues are.

What emerges is a 'shopping list' of items for discussion, raised by the union (often there will be more than one union) and the employer side. The lists should coincide but this isn't always the case, as one side may not be prepared to consider something the other deems as important. The conciliator is seeking to find areas where there might be a meeting of minds, and to understand what assumptions underpin the positions of each party. The conciliator may also bring more to the table at this stage, giving examples of good practice or what works in other organisations. It's their job to open thought processes as well as doors.

The next stage is about narrowing the gap and seeking to close the deal. The conciliator will often start to challenge the parties, to identify the quick wins, tease out the areas for negotiation, and also clarify which issues can be parked. The conciliator will reassure the parties that there is still room for manoeuvre, 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed'. So parties can have the confidence to explore what one party will give back in return for their own concessions. Using 'what if' scenarios can help.

It's a sensitive stage in proceedings. Parties will rarely be in the same room. The conciliator will be the one doing the walking, conveying messages and getting the final deal agreed. On occasions, the conciliator will decide to set up so-called 'corridor meetings' with one or two leading negotiators from each side to try to change the dynamic and move things forward. These meetings can often help break the deadlock that may be stalling progress in the talks.

This whole process can take days, weeks or longer. The 'style' of conciliation will vary but the qualities that make a good conciliator are pretty consistent: patience, being a good listener, patience, tact, resolve, patience, ingenuity, influencing skills.... and, did I mention patience? Plus some magic ingredients, things the observer can't detect.

Art or science?  A bit of both and a lot of fancy footwork in maintaining Acas' impartial stance while assisting the parties to reach a settlement on their differences.

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