Refereeing your friends

Refereeing your friends (Hill Street Studios, Blend Images/via Getty Images / June 27, 2013)

That old axiom about three being a crowd is never truer than when two out of three are fighting.

Playing the neutral third party while your friends engage in all-out battle is exhausting and precarious. Handle it right and everyone's happy. Handle it wrong and all three of you could end up parting ways.

We checked in with conflict resolution experts for tips on wrapping things up as quickly and delicately as possible.

"What you want to do is help both of them do their own best thinking about the situation rather than trying to fix it for them," says former corporate litigator Caroline Packard, co-author of "The Mediator's Handbook" (New Society Publishers). "You can listen and ask open-ended questions and help them think through what's important to them."

This is easier to do if you approach the situation with some internal guidelines about what you will and won't do.

"I've been involved in a lot of these situations, and I've gotten myself into positions I didn't intend to be in," says corporate coach Joseph Grenny. "Now I try to approach the situations proactively so I keep myself out of the ditch in the future."

Grenny, co-author of the highly acclaimed series of books focusing on intense communication, including "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High" and "Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior" (McGraw-Hill), says it's critical to create a role for yourself that doesn't fuel the feud and doesn't leave you feeling compromised.

Conflict mediator is not a role that comes naturally to many of us. But Packard says it can be learned.

"You can get better at it," she says. "But it's like playing the trombone. You have to be prepared to feel clunky and fake at first."

Three tips for getting past the clunky and reaching a resolution all parties can live with:

Set boundaries. "It's important to have a very clear boundaries conversation up front with anybody who tries to get you in the middle of a conflict," says Grenny. "If you don't, you end up in a role you didn't choose where you feel responsible or blamed or feeling like you compromised your integrity."

He recommends emphasizing the importance of transparency. He suggests you might say, "I don't want to hear anything that will affect my behavior toward the other person that either you or I won't disclose" or "Don't put something in my brain that's going to make me feel or think differently about the other person, unless one of the two of us is going to take the responsibility to get it out in the open."

Refuse to be a go-between, Packard adds. "Do not carry messages back and forth," she says. "You risk being a target. If your friend says, 'Can you talk to her?' you're better off saying, 'Tell me a little bit more about what you're hoping to get her to understand and let me help you figure out a way to tell her.'"

And make sure your friends both know that your skillful listening is not the same as tacit approval or taking sides, Grenny says.

"Don't mistake my love and support for you with agreement with your views or actions," he suggests saying. "I'm not going to choose sides. I'm going to love you and I'm going to love them and if you're going to hold this relationship hostage you probably ought not talk to me."

Know your place. You can be a sounding board or you can be a coach. Let your friends tell you what they need. Grenny recommends an opener like this:

"There are two reasons you and I can talk and I just want to know which of these you want, and you can change your mind at any point: The first is for me to validate you, where we focus on how you're feeling — you're feeling manipulated or hurt. The second is for you to get coaching. You're confused and not sure how to respond. Do you want validation or do you want coaching?"

In either role, he says, clarify your boundaries.

"I won't collude," he says. "I won't support your unhealthy responses or support your victim or villain story. I won't sit idly by while you create pain for yourself, or support you in behavior that's not good for you and not good for anybody else."

If you're coaching, help your friends narrow the issue down to its most solvable point.