Managing conflict in three approaches

Written by: Dain Hong / Communication / September 2019

Conflict is inevitable. Whether the setting is professional, romantic, social or even public, there will be as many opinions as there are individuals. Some embrace conflict as an opportunity to demonstrate their authority on the topic and possibly their debating skills, while others keep quiet in fear of rocking the boat. Seeing conflict as an opportunity to better understand one another is essential in facing conflict when it arises. 

Below are three approaches to help better manage conflict. 

Active listening

While individuals are unique in their set of values and beliefs, common courtesy and a standard of respect is often shared. For this reason, much conflict is founded in misunderstandings. When we feel wronged against, our first impression may be that the act of malice was intentional. Unless we address the perpetrator, our understanding of them may be tainted by the single experience. It is through listening to the other’s perspective that we are able to understand the reason behind their actions. 


Some reasons may be more obvious than others: tardiness, general tension from a preceding event, or inattention. The hidden reasons may require some digging and observation to identify: family upbringing, history of being bullied, or reduced social skills. When the reason behind the threatening word or deed is discovered, there is greater room for empathizing and sympathizing. Without this reason, our possibly inaccurate interpretation holds, which is unfair for both parties it becomes a barrier to networking and relationship building. 


Two ways of active listening involve paraphrasing and clarifying. The former involves summarizing in one’s own words what has been understood. Some carrier sentences include “What I hear you saying is…”, “What was going on for you was…” and “So, what happened was…”. By paraphrasing, one allows the other to feel heard; it also allows the listener to check in with the speaker to confirm details. 


Hand in hand with paraphrasing, clarifying requires asking questions to get a bigger picture of the situation. Such questions when answered shares important information for discussion and dialogue; it also allows the speaker to feel acknowledged, as the listener is showing interest. 

Whole message

The idea of whole messages make sense only in contrast to its counterpart—contaminated messages, messages that are mixed and convoluted. A whole message is clear in its 1) observation, 2) thought, 3) feeling, and 4) need. A common assumption that every individual makes when they find themselves in an interpersonal conflict is they (the other) should know what I need. Unfortunately, no one knows what one needs except the individual themselves. For the other to know what one needs, that need must be expressed clearly; and this format of stating what one has noticed, how one has interpreted it, and what one is feeling about it has to precede the clearly expressed need. 


Find below an example of a contaminated message purified to be whole: 


Contaminated: “I know what your problem is. You like to get paid, but you don’t like to work.”


Whole: “You’ve been late six times in the last two weeks [observation]. It makes me think that you’re trying to work as little as possible [thought]. The lateness irritates me [feeling], and I want you to be late no more than once a month [need].”


A dispute based on a speaker’s value judgement can transform into a cordial discussion when the speaker takes the whole message approach, as the speaker’s entire thought process is laid out in clearly. 


Moving forward

Finger pointing may be easy to do when one is sure they are in the right, but such a juvenile approach is most suitable for the playground. To manage conflict effectively, one must focus on the solution rather than the problem. Conflict management is about moving forward, and blaming takes us in the other direction. Once the problem is identified, one can begin brainstorming ways of making amends, and of taking prevention measures. 


On the same note, it is important to use I-statements rather than you-statements, as the former focuses on the beliefs of the speaker while the latter focuses on the thoughts the speaker attributes to the other. For example, “I feel frustrated when you ask me to repeat things over and over again” is preferable to “You never listen when I talk.” 


Additionally, choosing neutral words over negatively charged ones are crucial to reduce tension and perceived aggression. Negative vocabulary includes not, disagree, but, un-, and in-. Rather than speaking about what is not working, what about speaking about what would work better? Instead of disagreeing blatantly, how about suggesting the differing idea? It would be redundant to say that one disagrees when the idea presented after is one of disagreement. Finally, rather than pointing out what is inefficient, why not be more solution-focused and describe what could be more efficient


Overall, conflict requires management. Done skillfully, both parties reach mutual understanding and are challenged appropriately. 


McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages, the communication book. p. 35-55 Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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