When we talk about “managing face,” we mean the impression we give to others and how we would like to be viewed. In conflict resolution, mediators look for ways to allow parties to save face or rebuild their image in order to resolve a dispute.
What Is “Face”
Our face is our window on the world. Beauty and cosmetics comprised a $445 billion dollar industry in 2017, and beauty products are one tool we use to enhance our image and appearance. But “face” is a concept which goes beyond one’s physical appearance; this idea refers to one’s image of self. It includes who we think we are and how we perceive ourselves in all of our various roles. Our idea of face may include a sense of honor, dignity, politeness, status, and other social behaviors. As mediator John Ng describes it, “Face is a social image that individuals would like to preserve for themselves.” The concept of face is also heavily dependent on cultural values and social norms.
When socializing and communicating with others, we strive to support one another’s face. It involves creating and sustaining an identity for yourself as well as helping others whom you communicate with to sustain their self-image and impression. So maintaining face is a cooperative, social process.
When an interpersonal conflict occurs, one or more parties in the dispute often experience a loss of face. This has multiple implications for conflict resolution. First, people who have lost face may experience emotions such as shame, guilt or embarrassment. Second, the experience of losing face may result in a desire for revenge or retaliation. So any person involved in resolving disputes must understand ways to manage and bolster face and repair it when there is damage. A mediator could ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you need in order to feel whole again?”
Two Types of Face
Scholars who study this area identify two types of face. Positive Face is the desire to be liked and respected. For instance, when someone expresses admiration for a person or values what they do or say, then positive face is involved. Autonomous Face is the desire for privacy, independence, and recognition. This kind of face is supported when a spouse recognizes their partner’s need for downtime. A request that impacts someone’s independence or autonomy may affect this type of face. Sometimes these two different face needs can clash when loved ones make excessive demands on family members or when there isn’t enough balance between these competing needs. 
Facework refers to the process by which people establish and maintain their impressions of themselves to others as well as supporting or denying the impressions that others are making. It consists of four separate but interconnected factors:
These four factors are constantly changing as people interact with each other.
In mediation, parties who are in conflict often make a lot of assumptions about “the other” and their intent. As a result of these assumptions, feelings are hurt and face is damaged.
Preventative Facework refers to strategies for avoiding or minimizing threats to face. These include: standing in the other’s shoes, accepting the other’s right to change their mind, avoidance of face-threatening topics, and use of disclaimers and qualifiers. A disclaimer is a communication that softens the forcefulness of a message, i.e., “I don’t want to sound bossy, but I think you are sitting in my place”.
Supportive Facework consists of strategies that are consistent with the concept “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” People want to look good, be respected, feel secure and important. Think about whether in your interactions with others you foster their positive impressions of themselves. Do you politely greet the security guard in the building you enter? Do you treat a restaurant worker with respect? Do you try to make your office colleague feel valued and worthwhile when you ask them to do a task for you?
Corrective Facework refers to strategies and statements designed to repair the effect of face-threatening messages. Checking on your perceptions is one way of managing impressions. Another strategy is offering an explanation. Both of these tactics help ensure that the person receiving your messages doesn’t misconstrue them. If the issue is minor, disregarding the statement may be an option. However, if such comments are continually ignored they can create a bigger conflict. When an individual experiences a hurtful situation and has lost face there is a keenly felt need for an explanation of the offense and some kind of remedy. The remedy can consist of an account or explanation of the offensive behavior or hurtful statements or conduct. The offender may offer excuses, justifications, or an apology. An apology, if honest and heartfelt, is the most restorative corrective facework strategy.
Mediators engage strategies, largely through insightful open-ended questions, that allow for corrective facework to take place so that the conflict can be resolved.
 Ruth Abigail and Dudley Cahn, Managing Conflict Through Communication, Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.