As mediator for the World Bank and United Nations in Asia and managing director of the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution Asia Pacific, Danny McFadden has seen a considerable increase in mediation in the region over the last decade, especially in Singapore and in Hong Kong, where he is based. A Mandarin speaker, he regularly defuses difficulties within international teams. “Cultural aspects amplify the problem,” he says.
Sometimes the solution can be relatively simple even in heightened circumstances. In Taiwan, at a computer parts manufacturer, he found an American boss was holding meetings with the local Taiwanese office manager in a glass-partitioned office. The whole office could see the New Yorker talking energetically and repeatedly tapping two fingers on the desk top. It looked like the Taiwanese manager was being told off.
“The office manager felt browbeaten and bullied and the local staff had rallied around him,” McFadden says. These types of conflicts can have a significant impact on productivity. Tension among workers ratcheted so high that the plant began missing its financial targets.
The answer lay partly in persuading the New Yorker to leave his office door open, so that although his gestures appeared angry everyone could hear his tone of voice was calm and understood it was a conversation between two professionals.
Research by mediation expert Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction at Loughborough University, suggests careful selection of language is crucial.
She analysed phone conversations with potential participants. When asked ‘Would you be willing to take part?’ the answer was always ‘yes’.“As soon as the ‘willing’ word popped out the callers changed their position from resistance to enthusiastic uptake. To say ‘no’ to ‘willing’ would be to say ‘I’m not going to engage with this process’ and callers wanted to be seen as the good party,” explains Stokoe.
One word to avoid when apologising is ‘but’ – Steadman says placing conditions on an apology removes the positives.
Stokoe’s strategy for deflecting strife? “A first mover is the prickly colleague who says something outrageous. But if you call them out then suddenly they are the victim of you calling them out. My solution is to be super-nice, take the wind out of their sails.”
But if friction leads to feud, then it’s time to call in the peacemakers.
Says Steadman: “Mediation is very much about helping people have a conversation they’ve just not been able to have because it’s too difficult, too emotional and would get completely out of control.”
For professional feud-breakers, job satisfaction lies in following up weeks or months later to hear that former enemies are now working together calmly. Says Steadman, “Conflict turns people into someone they don’t recognise and mediation can restore them to themselves.”
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.