Workplace conflicts and disputes can stymie a company’s growth.

When that happens, differing parties might turn to a mediator — an impartial person who, instead of serving as a judicial decision-maker, acts as an active facilitator and listener — to achieve more-expedient, less-expensive resolutions without draping a pall over company operations.

In 1984, the Washington State Legislature authorized funding from court fees and other public sources to create Dispute Resolution Centers (DRCs) to alleviate workloads at county courthouses. Today, nearly two dozen DRCs in 25 counties are staffed with mediators who offer services at little to no cost to participants.

Mediation can be provided by a law firm, retired judge, or anyone who seeks training. Many law schools offer mediation courses as part of their curriculum.

Between 2013 and 2018, Resolution Washington, the member association for Washington’s DRCs, mediated 34,109 cases; of that number, 7,209, or roughly 21 percent, accounted for business/workplace remediation. Disputes were successfully settled in 75 percent of those instances.

Similarly, since the Foreclosure Fairness Act in Washington state was passed in 2011, DRCs have facilitated more than 3,600 cases involving borrowers facing foreclosure and their lenders.

Could mediation help your workplace situation? In the pages that follow, we hear from two Eastside mediators, compile a shortlist of resources, and mine the data to help answer that question.

Matt Turetsky

Company: Matt Turetsky Mediation / Arbitration (Newcastle)

Background: As a trial lawyer at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt in downtown Seattle, Matt Turetsky helped business owners navigate a wide range of disputes. 

All along, Turetsky said, he sought a more creative, cooperative, and less costly approach to resolving litigation “without the warring mentality.” 

“I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to help my clients avoid litigation altogether, or to find a way out of it before the legal fees mounted,” he added. “I built a reputation for reaching good settlements and creative deal-making. But there are many cases in which the parties are so entrenched in their positions, and their mutual distrust runs so deep, that it takes a neutral party to facilitate the negotiation. In those cases, my clients turned to a mediator to help settle the lawsuits.”

Earlier this year, Turetsky left the law firm, where he worked for 25 years, to become a full-time mediator who helps business owners settle thorny disputes.

Turetsky shared his insights into what makes for a successful mediation, and how differing parties can amicably resolve disputes.

Matt Turetsky:

Mediators don’t simply pass settlement offers back and forth or magically propose a solution that meets everyone’s needs. A good mediator facilitates a process, listens carefully to the people about how the dispute arose and the reasons for their position. The mediator must also understand the human factors impacting the dispute, including the decision-making processes used by the businesses and the personalities and behavioral factors that have led to impasse.

Mediations have a much higher likelihood of success when the business leaders have a genuine interest in resolution and are willing to make compromises in order to achieve their most important goals. When the parties are willing to work thoughtfully and think creatively, any problem can be solved. In contrast, when one or both of the parties want to win or punish the other party, it makes resolution more difficult. Business leaders should recognize that litigation that lasts for years rarely benefits anyone except the lawyers. Focusing on your own success, rather than trying to inflict harm on the other side, will invariably lead to better outcomes.

Because litigation can be a toxic experience for the parties, I’m seeing more and more that lawyers at law firms steer their clients toward mediation as a better option to avoid litigation in the first place.

Nancy Highness

Company: Mediation First (Bellevue)

Background: Nancy Highness worked for many years in the field of education before she found her true calling as a professional mediator. 

While earning a Master of Business Administration degree in Finance at Seattle University, Highness was introduced to mediation, and thought that being a facilitator or mediator who helped to resolve conflicts might be an interesting job. 

Highness said she took her first mediation training class in 1993, and began to work as a professional mediator two years later — starting out with family disputes, then transferring her focus to business and workplace issues. 

“I decided I really wanted to focus on business and employment mediation — trying to get people back into the workplace, trying to give people an opportunity to leave a position with dignity — just seemed to be really good uses of everybody’s time,” said Highness.

She shared her insights into what makes for a successful mediation, the growing need for everyday conflict resolution training, and tips for employees and employers to reach agreements.

Nancy Highness:

I see more reality shows on television where people are being voted off the island or conspiring to get other people, and this is entertainment. To me, it’s sending a really unfortunate message.

The greatest praise I’ve ever had as a mediator was many years ago, and between two business owners — who were also friends — totally at odds with each other. During the mediation, they just really got beyond all of that, figured it out, and then turned to me and said, “Why do we need you?” Thank you! Often, people’s behaviors change in front of a stranger. They behave themselves a little bit better, conduct themselves in a little different way. Given an opportunity, people will get through this stuff.

I have two mediation tips for businesses. First, provide some sort of conflict resolution training. Frontload conflict resolution training for employees. The other tip is talk less and listen more. Somebody said, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. You should listen twice as much as you talk.”