More on Constructive Conflict Communication


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Newsletter 146 - Tuesday, August 22, 2023

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess




Our last newsletter talked about the importance of talking with and listening to people on "the other side" of significant conflict. There we talked briefly about active listening and I-messages, but didn't go into detail. While some in our readership are, no doubt, very familiar with these processes, others likely are not. So we want to explain more about how these strategies are used, why they are useful, and how to do them in this newsletter.  If all of this is familiar to you, you can skip reading further, but you may find some of the material here interesting, nevertheless, as it includes some wonderful anecdotes from several of our colleagues about the power of these strategies.


Empathic Listening

De-escalatory or constructive conflict communication has two interlinked parts: listening and speaking.  While both are necessary, listening is perhaps the more important of the two.  Dick Salem, a mediator and trainer (and good friend of ours), wrote an article for Beyond Intractability on "empathic listening." In it, he pointed out that while we are taught how to read, write, and sometimes talk at home and in school (as in speech class), we are almost never taught to listen.  But good listening, he argued, is a teachable skill, and it is key to good conflict communication.

Before retiring to run his own conflict consulting business, Dick was a mediator with the Community Relations Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, formed as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the purpose of preventing and defusing major civil rights conflicts within the U.S.  In 1999, Guy Burgess and I worked with Dick to do in-depth interviews with about twenty of the long-time CRS mediators1.  One of the themes that came up in their discussions frequently was the importance and power of good listening.  Several of our respondents explained that often disputants calmed down, sometimes were even completely satisfied, when someone simply listened to them and made it clear that they understood what they were saying and feeling.  

In his his article on listening, Dick reported the following:

Even when the conflict is not resolved during mediation, the listening process can have a profound impact on the parties. Jonathon Chace, associate director of the U.S. Community Relations Service, recalls a highly charged community race-related conflict he responded to more than 30 years ago [now more than 60 years ago] when he was a mediator in the agency's Mid-Atlantic office. It involved the construction of a highway that would physically divide a community centered around a public housing project. After weeks of protest activity, the parties agreed to mediation. In the end, the public officials prevailed and the aggrieved community got little relief. When the final session ended, the leader of the community organization bolted across the floor, clasped the mediator's hand and thanked him for being "different from the others."

"How was I different?" Chace asked. "You listened," was the reply. "You were the only one who cared about what we were saying."2

I remember another CRS mediator, Silke Hansen, saying the same thing, but with more detail:

 I have found that just spending time listening and understanding what some of their problems are goes a long way towards developing some credibility with the institutional representative. Eventually, they begin to think, "You know, maybe this woman really can help me." So then they are willing to give it [mediation] that chance.

I am thinking of one case that involved a small, rural community. I spent a long time there talking with and mostly listening to the sheriff. I think that he was really surprised that a government official wasn't there to clobber him. He was really surprised that I understood him. I said, "You know, one of the things that I have learned in this work is that law enforcement personnel in some of these small. rural communities face challenges that New York and Los Angeles and Denver never even think about. It's hard doing law enforcement here." He was astounded that I understood that. "Hey, here is somebody who understands what I'm up against!" One of their biggest frustrations is that they are not New York or Denver or Los Angeles, so what works in the big cities might not work for him, but most people don't understand that. I don't need to agree with him or what he is doing, but if I just have a sympathetic ear and recognize that I need to understand his perspective, as well as the minority community's perspective, then that's a big step in the right direction.

. . .

The importance of really listening is sometimes underrated.  In one really major conflict I was involved in, I really wasn't sure how much of a difference I had made in the overall scheme of things. But one of the things I was told near the end of that case was, " Silke, you at least listened." Generally, people don't do that. I have heard that many times since. Even in cases where there really wasn't a whole lot I could do, and it was hard to say where mediation might be useful, if a community actually felt listened-to and not just ignored, swept aside or totally disregarded, that has made a huge difference!

. . .

That is part of what I try to get across to each of the parties. If, in fact, [we engage in] mediation or some similar method of resolving some of those local tensions, I ask both sides to just listen to what the other is saying. "I am not asking you to agree, or cave in, but just hear what they are saying and what their concerns are. You might even have some solution for them that they didn't even think of.  But first, just listen."

. . .

It's amazing how important that is to people in conflict. Part of what intensifies the conflict and violence potential in many cases is that people think that they are not being heard. The reason they are shouting is because they think if they shout, someone will finally hear them. Of course, it doesn't work that way. But I think part of the reason for the volume is that they haven't felt listened-to, so they think, "Maybe if I get louder, they will actually hear me."

Most conflict resolution trainers teach what they call "active listening" or "reflective listening."  Dick's article on BI is entitled "empathic listening" because I originally approached Dick and asked him to write two articles for BI on topics he talked a lot about in his CRS interview.  One was listening, the other was empathy.  He looked at me with surprise and said "they are the same thing!" So "empathic listening" became the title of his single article. 

Empathic listening, according to Dick, has at least five benefits:  

  1. It builds trust and respect
  2. It enables disputants to address and release their emotions,
  3. It reduces tensions,
  4. It encourages the surfacing of information (hence, I would note, helping to dispel misunderstandings, and clarify facts)
  5. It creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem solving.

WOW!  Can you imagine if many more of us engaged in this kind of listening with "the other," how much benefit that could bring?

So how is empathic listening different from "normal" listening?

For a start, it is really "tuned in."  When you engage in active (or empathic) listening, you give the speaker your full attention. If culturally acceptable (it isn't everywhere), you look the speaker in the eyes; you nod, say "uh-huh," and make other verbal and nonverbal gestures to show that you are paying close attention.  You don't interrupt, but rather, wait for a pause in the speaker's monologue, at which point you feed back what you heard, to show that you were, indeed, paying careful attention and second, that you understood what was being said correctly. But you have to take care not to "parrot" what the speaker said word-for-word.  Rather, repeat the same idea in your own words, emphasizing the emotional content of the message as well as the substance. A former colleague of ours, Tom Sebok, who was Ombuds at the University of Colorado for many years, often taught a lesson on active listening in my Conflict Skills course. There he played a tape of someone trying to actively listen by repeating exactly what the speaker said. Getting increasingly exacerbated, the speaker finally says to the listener, 'what's wrong with you?!' Why are you repeating everything I say?" Active listeners listen attentively for a time, and then when the speaker pauses, they may say "tell me more," or reflect on what they heard and understood in their own words, not by "being a parrot." 

In his article on empathic listening on BI, Dick quotes Madelyn Burley-Allen's guidelines for empathic listening.3

  1. Be attentive. Be interested. Be alert and not distracted. Create a positive atmosphere through nonverbal behavior.
  2. Be a sounding board -- allow the speaker to bounce ideas and feelings off you while [you assume] a nonjudgmental, non-critical manner.
  3. Don't ask a lot of questions. They can give the impression you are "grilling" the speaker.
  4. Act like a mirror -- reflect back what you think the speaker is saying and feeling.
  5. Don't discount the speaker's feelings by using stock phrases like "It's not that bad," or "You'll feel better tomorrow."
  6. Don't let the speaker "hook" you. This can happen if you get angry or upset, allow yourself to get involved in an argument, or pass judgment on the other person.
  7. Indicate you are listening by
    • Providing brief, noncommittal acknowledging responses, e.g., "Uh-huh," "I see."
    • Giving nonverbal acknowledgements, e.g., head nodding, facial expressions matching the speaker, open and relaxed body expression, eye contact.
    • Invitations to say more, e.g., "Tell me about it," "I'd like to hear about that."
  8. Follow good listening "ground rules:"
    • Don't interrupt.
    • Don't change the subject or move in a new direction.
    • Don't rehearse [your response] in your own head.
    • Don't interrogate.
    • Don't teach.
    • Don't give advice.
    • Do reflect back to the speaker what you understand and how you think the speaker feels

Dick further emphasized that you let the speaker take the lead—you don't change the subject or interrogate, though you can ask the speaker to "tell me more" to try to encourage them to tell more of the story, or more of their feelings.  And, though sometimes it feels particularly hard, don't teach, and don't give advice.  The role of the listener is to act like a mirror—letting people talk and bounce ideas off of the listener.  Let them assess whether those ideas are good or not.  Don't do the assessment for them.

That, I and my students have found, is the hardest part of empathic listening.  When people tell you a story and say "what do you think I should do?" it is very hard not to answer that question with your own advice.  And, at times, you should do that.  But, most often, it is more helpful to turn the conversation back to them by saying, for instance, "well, what options have you thought about?" Dick's article on BI has much more information on how to listen empathically, and why it is so helpful in intractable conflicts.


The second commonly-taught method of de-escalating communication is I-messages.  These are statements that people can use when they are upset or concerned about something, but they want to express that feeling without further escalating the conflict with the person they think did wrong.  This is most commonly taught in the context of interpersonal conflicts—when one person is upset with someone else, not with "Republicans" in general, or "Democrats," in general.  But the same concept can be applied to these broader circumstances as well

Starting with the interpersonal context, instead of blaming the other person with an accusatory "you statement," such as "you didn't get that report done on time!," show how the failure to get the report done affected you. "I was hoping I'd have the report in my hands by yesterday, as I was supposed to show it to the boss. It was embarrassing not to have it."  When you use a you-message, the respondent is likely to get defensive, saying "I had too much to do," or "the deadline was unrealistic" or another excuse that could easily turn into an escalated argument.  When you state the problem without blame, it makes it easier for the other person to help solve the problem, without having to admit they were wrong (hence allowing them to save face).   It, of course, also helps if you are willing to "own" your part of the problem by, for example, suggesting that your expectations may not have adequately considered the amount of work involved, or you may not have been clear about why you needed it when you did.

The notion of "owning" your own part of the problem is where the broader applicability comes in.  If we are angry at "the other side" in a political conflict, we tend to blame the other and lash out at them, insisting that they caused the problem, so they should fix it. But it often works much better if if we consider how we (or at least others on our side) may be contributing to the problem, and may be, at least in part, causing the other side to behave as they have. So for example, many conservatives oppose DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) programs because they believe these programs teach that Whites are "irredeemable racists who are responsible for all of the problems faced by non-Whites (BIPOCs) , and who should be ashamed and held accountable for their ancestor's actions , no matter the degree to which they benefited from those historic injustices or personally acted in racist ways. Regardless of the hotly debated merits of such an argument, it is not surprising that many Whites get defensive and lash back against such assertions and the programs that make them..

If, alternatively, the problem of racial disparities (or, more generally, chronic disadvantage and discrimination) is framed as a joint problem to be addressed wherever it arises, then  de-escalation and successful problem solving becomes much easier. People can jointly examine the things they see as causing the problem (including their own actions), and jointly explore options for solutions.  This approach cultivates a kind of social safety net that, while benefiting everyone, channels most of the assistance to those who have suffered from the greatest levels of disadvantage and discrimination. It treats all people respectfully, and gets people involved in and sharing ownership of the process and solutions proposed.  It is also an approach that is much more likely to be broadly regarded as fair and equitable because it judges people based on their personal conduct and character (and not their membership in some arbitrarily defined racial group). This makes it much more likely that they will cooperate with any ideas adopted, as they helped formulate those ideas, instead of having them imposed on them.


We are now working with Grande Lum, former Director of CRS, and Bill Froehlich, Deputy Director of the Divided Community Project, to update that effort with ten (or so) more newer interviews. The new interviews are beginning to be posted at, and will be integrated into the original project website (which is being updated) as soon as possible. 

2 Richard Salem, "Community Dispute Resolution Through Outside Intervention," Peace & Change Journal VIII, no. 2/3 (1982)

Madelyn Burley-Allen, Listening the Forgotten Skill, (John Wiley & sons, 1982). Burley-Allen is a former president of the American Listening Assn.

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Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

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