Effective Communication & Conflict Resolution

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. – George Bernard Shaw

Communication is every leader and organization’s greatest ally or unacknowledged burden.

One of the biggest challenges for people when in conflict with others is dealing with the emotional content and each other’s feelings and differences. Because this is difficult for most people at given times, the most common way to deal with it is to avoid or dismiss how you or others are feeling. This is the biggest cause of broken communication, repeating issues and lack of resolution to persistent work relationship issues.

People have different viewpoints, and under the right set of circumstances, those differences escalate to conflict.

Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Healthy and constructive conflict is a component of high-functioning teams. Conflict arises from differences between people; the same differences that often make diverse teams more effective. Team members must be open to these differences and not let them rise into disputes, power struggles and turf wars.

How you handle that conflict determines whether it works to the team’s advantage, or contributes to its demise.

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said. –  Peter Drucker

You can choose to ignore it, complain about it, blame someone for it, or try to deal with it through hints and suggestions; or you can be direct, clarify what is going on, and attempt to reach a resolution. It’s clear that conflict has to be dealt with, but the question is how: Are you going to have a Hole conversation or a Whole conversation?

Hole conversations are not complete or effective. They inevitably leave out important pieces that create lack of clarity, understanding and mutual agreement. Often what is left out is the “ugly and messy” emotions and issues that you are in denial or avoidance of; these are the source of the unresolved issues and conflict.

Hole conversations avoid or deny the following: issues and pain points in the relationship, unconscious-unexpressed-unresolved feelings and emotions that include fear, frustration, disappointment, judgement, anger and sadness to name a few,  negative beliefs about the other person or the issue.

Whole conversations create the right space and environment that allow all of the issues, pain points, feelings and emotions to be expressed and heard by all parties involved. A good rule of thumb is: “Feelings and emotions first, clarity, agreement and path forward after.”

Understanding and appreciating the various viewpoints and allowing for the emotional content involved in the conflict are key factors in its resolution. These are key skills for all team members to develop. The important thing is to maintain a healthy balance of constructive difference of opinion, and avoid negative conflict that’s destructive and disruptive.

When an individual or team oversteps the healthy difference of opinions, resolving conflict requires respect and patience. The human experience of conflict involves perceptions, emotions and actions; we experience it on all three levels, and we need to address all three levels to resolve it. We must replace the negative experiences with positive ones.

Communication is the real art and work of leadership.

Resolving Conflict, Creating Clarity and Connection

The following steps are necessary in order to facilitate a whole and healthy conversation:

  • Acknowledge the conflict – The conflict has to be acknowledged before it can be managed and resolved. The tendency is for people to ignore the first signs of conflict, perhaps as it seems trivial, or is difficult to differentiate from the normal, healthy debate that teams can thrive on. Once an issue is recognized and acknowledged it can start the process of resolution.
  • Discuss the impact – Discuss the impact the conflict is having on the relationship or project. How is it affecting the team dynamics and performance?
  • Agree to communicate – The most important thing throughout the resolution process is for everyone to keep communications open. The people involved need to talk about the issue and discuss their true feelings and emotions. Active listening is essential here, because to move on you need to understand and acknowledge where the other person is coming from. Take time to make sure that each person’s position is heard and understood. Remember that strong emotions are at work here so you have to get through the emotion and reveal the true nature of the conflict.
  • Clarify positions – Whatever the conflict or disagreement, it’s important to clarify people’s positions. Analyze each position and the associated facts, assumptions and beliefs. Consider the facts, assumptions, beliefs and decision making that lead to other people’s positions.
    • Take care to remain open, rather than criticize or judge the perceptions and assumptions of other people. Listen to all solutions and ideas presented by the various sides of the conflict. Everyone needs to feel heard and acknowledged if a workable solution is to be reached.

This process can help solve communication issues and individual and team conflict efficiently and effectively. The basis of the approach is gaining understanding of the different perspectives, feelings, wants and needs of your partners and colleagues. Use that understanding to expand your own thoughts and beliefs about the issue.

Whole Conversations vs. Hole Conversations Key Points

  • Conflict can be constructive as long as it is managed and dealt with directly.
  • Respect the differences between people, and acknowledge and address the underlying and unresolved feeling and issues that we all try to avoid.
  • Remain open to other people’s ideas, beliefs and assumptions.
  • Team members learning to see issues from the other side opens up new ways of thinking, which can lead to new and innovative solutions, and healthy team performance.