Put Down the Negativity: Letting Communication Work for Conflict Resolution

conflict resolutionFrom the start, the word “conflict” alone likely brings feelings of distress, draining you of energy and hope. The word origins itself come from the Latin conflictus – the act of striking together; to clash, collide, combat. Whether at work or at home, any sized conflict can bring dread of interaction with the individuals involved, often followed by a sense of avoidance that the slightest disagreement may spiral into a full-scale war.

Many people don’t know how to handle conflict resolution. It may seem natural to let a rise of conflict steer you to avoidance of those involved. It is, after all, a simple if-then determination: if my communication with the person leads to conflict, then eliminate the communication to end the conflict. Of course, this is fundamentally flawed, unproductive, and unrealistic. Yet, being a simple means to an end, it is nevertheless all too often how conflict is deferred. And it is certainly not conflict resolution.

Additionally, people incorrectly make a correlation between the existence of a conflict and there being a fundamental flaw in the relationship. On the contrary, productive communication often involves conflicts as each side explores the other’s needs, how those needs are not being met, and what may be done to resolve them.

Steps to Addressing Conflict

Conflict often occurs when one person has what another person needs, and that need is not being met. First, the person with the need must express the need. It must be examined and understood as to its extent and priority. Then, this need must be evaluated to see if it can or cannot be met by another. If yes, we have conflict resolution. If no, we negotiate to find how the need can be met, or we manage the conflict.

While it may seem overly simplistic, understanding and addressing these steps are too often overlooked. Most folks go right from their unmet need to management of the conflict, without expressing the need itself or evaluating the need. By jumping two feet first into the conflict from the start, they may not realize that maybe there never needed to be any conflict in the first place.

Communication Is the Key

Just as in any relationship, when you communicate effectively, you understand other people better and make your relationship stronger, whether in personal or business. That effectiveness is built around talking, listening and understanding. Let me explain.

If two individuals are talking back and forth with each other, or more accurately, at each other, they may only be saying words, phrases and sentences in the other’s direction. Literally. Yet, if they are listening properly as well, they are now retaining the other’s thoughts and expressions.

But this still does not complete an actual conversation. You need understanding. And not just the understanding of what you think the other is conveying, but what they actually mean to convey.

Can you recall a conversation when you did not quite understand what another has said, but you continue with the conversation as if you did? Or worse, your perceived understanding of the conversation was incorrect and you don’t even know it. The other person may rightfully assume that he has been heard and understood, and will likely rely on that assumption. Meanwhile, down the rabbit hole of miscommunication you both go.

Goodwill vanishes, confusion prevails, and emotions may even erupt. All the while the message could have avoided getting lost if the listener had repeated back what she thought was being conveyed to confirm it (reframing), or directly asked for clarification, “I need to be sure I’m understanding so I can help you. Can you explain what you mean by …?”

Just as with collaboration, conflict resolution requires communication that starts with listening, not talking: listening to clients to determine their needs; listening to opposing counsel to understand his or her argument; and, listening to colleagues to gain their perspectives.  By listening carefully, you can achieve your clients’ goals while addressing the needs of everyone involved in a knowledgeable, competent manner. You are determining their needs and how to address them, in hopes of avoiding conflict altogether.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

As you practice better conflict resolution, you will be communicating as a leader, whether you realize it or not. While you’re likely to come upon defensive, even hostile, interactions when exploring another team member’s needs, stay focused.

You may have refined your own listening and communication skills, but the other party may lack such abilities. Here, repetition does have value, so long as you maintain your focus on repeating your assertions calmly and clearly. You are merely cycling through the initial steps of expressing your need and how another can or cannot meet it. This may take a few rounds – likely with listening, reframing and understanding – until the needs are properly defined and conflict may be properly addressed. Be honest throughout and remain patience, progress will come.

Conflict Is Natural 

Remember that conflict comes naturally. The presence of civility does not mean the absence of conflict.

In fact, underlying the codes of civility is the assumption that people will disagree. The democratic process thrives on dialogue and dialogue requires disagreement. Civil dialogue over differences is democracy’s true engine. Individuals must disagree in order to debate, debate in order to decide, and decide in order to move. – Jayne R. Reardon

Next time you come upon conflict, don’t panic. You have the tools and the steps to work through resolving your needs and the needs of others, starting with understanding how they are defined. You now can direct your energies into communications and resolutions, rather than unproductive discourse or stressful anger.

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Mark C. Palmer

Mark C. Palmer

As Professionalism Counsel, Mark leads professionalism programming through the statewide mentoring program, collaborating with stakeholders from Galena to Cairo. Mark also supports the development and delivery of educational programming to lawyers and in law schools. When not in the office, you will likely find Mark and his wife busy raising their twin daughters, enjoying his passion of traveling and eating around the world, and training for his next half marathon.
Mark C. Palmer

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