Effective Conflict Communication Skills
Updated February 2013 by Heidi Burgess
Techniques by which a party can both convey their interests and concerns and comprehend others' interests and concerns effectively and productively.
Everyone involved in a conflict, from stakeholders to outsiders, communicates in ways that can either help or harm the chances of reaching resolution. Therefore, developing good communication skills is important for everyone.
Communication problems in a conflict situation can form an escalating cycle: poor communication exacerbates conflict, and conflict subsequently diminishes the quality of communication. This cycle is very common because a poorly communicated message leaves greater room for a negative interpretation, something an opponent is frequently predisposed to make anyway. Also, people engaged in a conflict can be sucked in by the desire to win, making it hard to listen to and empathize with the other side. Under these circumstances, communication is no longer about sharing productive ideas and viewpoints; it is part of the strategic weaponry.
Communication is subtle and complicated enough that a lot can go wrong. Some people have poor speaking skills, or engage in lying as a tactical move. Many have poor listening skills, often relying on assumptions, prior knowledge or beliefs, and stereotypes to form their opinions about other people or groups. People may only appear to be listening when instead, they are focusing on what they are going to say next to "get back" or "win" the argument. These examples merely scratch the surface. Communication -- good and bad -- is a key part of all disputes. It is therefore of utmost importance that parties in conflicts learn and exercise good communication skills. These skills can be broken down into five main areas of concern:
- The Speaker/Writer: The one actually doing the communication (talking or writing) is responsible for making themselves clear, and avoiding hostile, misleading, or ambiguous content. Of course, this assumes the person actually wants to give their listeners access to the real message. However, deception is sometimes chosen as a means to mislead and manipulate others, though that seldom is a constructive way to address a conflict.
- The Receiver: A communicator's best efforts are foiled when those on the receiving end don't listen (or read) well. Poor listening may be caused by an overly competitive attitude, holding content-coloring prejudices, preconceptions, or bias, or simply giving in to the tendency to hear only what one wants to hear. In the current age of information overload, we all tend to "tune out" others from time to time. Therefore, in reality, nearly all of us can work on being better listeners, all the more so if we become involved in a conflict. (The skill called "active listening" is particularly useful in such cases.)
- The Message: The content of the message can directly relate to how easily it is communicated and how accurately it might be received. Great care must be taken when the content is technically complex, when it is an idea that is being introduced for the first time, or when it has controversial, or emotionally-charged implications. Where language barriers exist, care must also be taken to make sure subtleties are captured to the greatest possible extent - a difficult challenge considering that sometimes things just don't translate well between languages.
- The Means of Communication: The medium of communication is more important than is sometimes recognized. For example, almost everyone uses e-mail and many send text messages to engage in or attempt to resolve conflicts. In both cases, nonverbal communication (body language, tone), emotions and subtleties --and sometimes the entire message itself doesn't come through. This greatly increases the possibility of misunderstanding. Yet face-to-face communication isn't always practical, and sometimes it might not even be desirable--for instance, when a violent exchange threatens. Letters may seem a bit formal, but they also might take the "sting" out of an otherwise inflammatory communiqué. When any means is used, the limitations must be taken into account.
- The Communicating Environment: When people are engaged in a calm and rational exchange, one's environment seems to be taken for granted. Yet when the mood is heated, where hostilities and mistrust are apparent, these take their toll on communication. It can be quite important to change the way we communicate, or even what we communicate, depending on the environment in which is it presented. Sometimes it might be better to wait until the mood changes, especially when offering controversial or complex ideas.
Several techniques are useful to learn if one wants to improve the quality of their conflict communication. Two of the most widely known and used techniques are active listening and I-messages. With active listening, listeners repeat back what they heard, in their own words, labeling the emotion as well as the content. (For example, "it sounds to me as if you became fearful for your job after you heard Bill's talk about the proposed restructuring.") This sentence labels the emotion "fear" as well as identifying the presumed cause of that emotion. The original speaker can then confirm that this understanding is correct, or can clarify what they meant if it is not. I-messages are a way of communication feelings without being accusatory. By substituting "I feel frustrated when....," one can identify a problem without accusing the other person of wrong-doing directly. This enables the listener to understand and respond to the speaker's feelings without having to be defensive, which is the common response when told, with a "you message," that they did something wrong.
Good communication skills are important in all aspects of life, but they are especially important when one is involved in a conflict. Conflicts can be made much worse by careless communication where inflammatory statements are made accidentally, stereotypes replace facts, and good listening is stifled. Attention to the five areas of concern listed above can usually improve the situation, sometimes even resolve it completely when the primary problem is simply a misunderstanding (which it often is).