Communication and Conflict
By Robert M. Krauss and Ezequiel Morsella
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Robert M. Krauss and Ezequiel Morsella. "Communication and Conflict." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000, pp. 131-143.
The authors seek to address the question: Under what conditions does communication reduce conflict? They examine four models of communication. From these models they derive seven principles of conflict-reducing communication.
The encoding-decoding model views human communication as a matter of encoding information (e.g. formulating a sentence), transmitting that message (e.g. speaking), and decoding the message (e.g. listening and understanding). Successful communication requires clear channels of transmission, and shared codes. Misunderstandings result from mistranslated messages, or from gaps or extraneous noise in the message. From this model the authors derive their first principle: "Avoid communication channels with low signal-to-noise ratios; if that is impossible, increase redundancy by restating the same idea in various forms."(p. 133).
The intentionalist model recognizes that the same words can have different meanings. On this model communication involves recognizing each other's communicative intentions. Effective communication requires a background of shared knowledge, particularly a common language and shared culture. Miscommunication results from a lack of common background. Miscommunication happens during conflicts as speakers' words are interpreted according to their listeners preconceived notions of their intentions. The authors' second principle directs listeners to try to grasp the speaker's intended meaning. The third principle directs speakers, when deciding what to say, to consider what their listeners will take them to mean.
The perspective -taking model recognizes that even individuals with a common language and culture have different perspectives on the world. This model directs speakers to design their messages to fit their audience's perspective. Miscommunication may occur when the speaker assumes more similarity in perspective with the listener than actually exists, or when the speaker's understanding of the listener's perspective is based in prejudice and inaccurate stereotypes. Another difficulty arises when a speaker is simultaneously addressing different audiences. Despite these problems, the authors' fourth principle directs speakers to take their listener's perspective into account in formulating their message.
The dialogic model views communication as a cooperative, collaborative process. Meaning arises from the communicative situation, and can only be understood within that context. This model, unlike the others, treats the listener as an active participant in the creation of a shared understanding. "Active listeners raise questions, clarify ambiguous declarations, and take great pains to ensure that they and their counterpart have the same understanding of what has been said."(p.140) Principle five is: Be an active listener. In conflict situations, principle six suggests "focus initially on establishing conditions that allow effective communication to occur; the cooperation that communication requires, once established, may generalize to other contexts."(p. 141)
In general, it is important to remember that the form of a message can obscure or undermine its content. For instance, an ironic form of address can reverse the usual meaning of words. The authors' seventh principle then is this: pay attention to message form.
Communication does not assure conflict resolution. Indeed, research has shown that in certain cases, communication can actually worsen bargaining outcomes. The authors stress however that poor communication is very likely to exacerbate conflicts. Good communication, coupled with a genuine desire to resolve a conflict and with quality proposals, makes conflict resolution more likely.