It was one of those calls we often get which starts with "I don't think there's anything that can be done, but we want to give mediation a try". It's really quite normal that the client who calls us can't see the resolution to the issue they're facing - as I always say to people, if you can see the solution then you don't really need mediation - just implement the solution instead!
This was a particularly sad case, as the two parties were previously great friends. The respect they once had for each other had completely disappeared, and a previously trusting working relationship had twisted into one of complete mistrust - to the extent where they hadn't spoken in those two years. Where they had to communicate, they did so through other people, as they could not face being in the same room as each other. Their poor line manager in the middle of all this was pulling his hair out with frustration.
By the time I got involved there was a lot of water that had passed under the bridge. Not only had they fallen out, they'd also registered formal grievances against one another. Following interrogation and statement writing through this process they drifted even further apart and trusted each other less as each day passed. This is quite normal in grievance processes - putting in complaints about the other person and making statements, plus reading their statements that you fundamentally disagree with - it's a recipe for driving people further apart.
As with most grievances, most of their formal complaints against each other were not upheld - mainly due to a lack of evidence. When these grievances were concluded and both had exhausted their appeals, nobody knew what to do next. One of the managers went off sick due to stress and the other one carried on - neither were in a good place.
So, fast forward on to the mediation itself. There were some difficult and emotional discussions between the two parties, and it took probably longer than average (not that I measure!) for them to turn their conversation from rear view mirror to forward thinking. However, I was OK with this as they had a long history and it felt useful to explore with them what had really happened - I had read all grievances and outcomes previously, but as usual a grievance doesn't get to the crux of the real issue.
Then I came across the real achilles heel for the case - the real root cause - the kind of issues not even mentioned in the grievance (which is so common). They'd fallen out about a book - a leadership book. So, how had that culminated in two years of grievances, counter-grievances, and stress related absence? I was intrigued!
One of the two friends had been on lunch, and during his lunch break had planned to sort some things out in town. They didn't go well - he had a very unproductive time and he hardly had time to eat. He returned to the office feeling frustrated and stressed. Upon arriving back to his desk, he saw somebody had left a book about how to be a better leader - on the front of the book was a post-it which read "you need to read this!" and was signed by the colleague who he thought was his friend. He therefore went straight to his email and sent the author of the post-it note a long email, in which he questioned who he thought he was criticising his leadership, and he provided some "home truths" about where the other person was lacking in their leadership style.
The recipient of the email responded accordingly and from then ensued an email battle, which then resulted in grievances and takes me back to the start of this story - the call from the company to try mediation as a last resort.
The outcome? Lots of tears, lots of hugging and lots of apologies. That mediation day was the only time they'd both spoken properly and (most importantly) listened to understand each other. When the first reader of the book explained how upset he was to receive an angry email on the back of a kind gesture, the recipient of the post-it note realised his true intent. He had read the book and found it so fantastic he wanted to lend it to his friend. It was only in hindsight that he also understood how the words had been misinterpreted.
The main reason for the tears? They'd missed each other. They'd spent two years fighting and hating each other - both had been driven to medication. They both expressed how they wish they'd had the conversation two years earlier - something we hear all the time, and one of the many reasons why we train line managers and HR professionals as internal mediators - if somebody within the organisation had been able to help them have a proper conversation two years previously, they would have been in a much better place.
Such a sad case, but one that resulted such a huge weight lifting from both sets of shoulders!