Interpersonal Disputes and Structural Problems

Howard Gadlin

Ombudsman, Center for Cooperative Resolution, National Institutes of Health

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Is it difficult to figure out what level of analysis to look at when you are dealing with something that appears to be interpersonal and ends up being structural? What are the clues that tip you off to look deeper or at the larger picture?

A: The first clue is when you have people who are engaged in what appears to be a really deep personal conflict in the work place is to remember to ask them questions about the work places as well. How they do they work? What it entails? Who reports to whom? Who communicates with whom? Are you dependent on her work? Is she dependent on your work? Are deadlines met? How are deadlines set? If you are dependent on her work to get your work done, what latitude to you have to set expectations to her? Are they set only by a supervisor? Do you set them up collaboratively? There are all sorts of things. You have to ask those kinds of things. 

You have to know what questions to ask. To know what questions to ask you have to ask them about the work they are doing. You cannot just be limited by the stories that they tell you. You are looking for certain clues.

Q: That must be a challenge to break out of the mold of the stories that they are telling you. I suppose . You have done it for years.

A: Yea. But you are working with the stories. You are asking them to flesh out the stories. If you are complaining about nurse B being particular nasty in her interaction with you and hostile to you, and you think it is because you are a man and they don't like having male nurses. I am going to have to listen to all of that. But then I am going to have to ask you other questions, like when do you get into conflict with nurse A or B, or which ever you want? Ok, well tell me about what exactly

do you do and what exactly does she do.

Q: Right.

A: And then you go from there. You are still working with their stories but in organizations people understand their disputes in primarily personally terms, very often, and not necessarily easily inclined towards understanding the way in which structural factors may be contributing to disputes. So our role is to help people think about it in a somewhat different way. I think any dispute intervener has to help people re-understand their dispute in somewhat different terms, as long as people stay stuck in their understandings in what they think their dispute is about exclusively then you are going to make limited progress.