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11 communication strategies to resolve conflict

Conflict resolution is all about building and rebuilding trust between people. Trust is built through communication. We get to know, understand, and predict one another’s intentions and behaviors through communication, including the way we speak, write, our gestures, and facial expressions.

We need to really get to know people; that is, we must communicate with individuals as often and as authentically as possible while doing our best to avoid assuming things.

The key to conflict resolution is learning to communicate in ways that clearly indicate respect, honor diversity and uniqueness, identify shared goals and values, and discount misconceptions, misinterpretations, and perceived threats.

1. Use the DESC script

DESC stands for Describe, Express, Specify, and Consequences. Here’s how it works.

DESCRIBE – Describe the behavior/situation as completely and objectively as possible. Just the facts!

“Paul, for the last few weeks, you have been ignoring all my suggestions in the weekly team meetings. I’ve noticed this ever since I was made the senior manager.”

EXPRESS – Express your feelings or thoughts about the behavior/situation. Try phrasing your statements using “Ï” and not “You”. Beginning sentences with You often puts people on the defensive, which means they won’t listen to you.

“I want to let you know that I feel both disappointed and angry. Disappointed, because I have always liked working with you and angry because I feel like the enemy here and it’s making me look bad.”

SPECIFY – Specify what behavior/outcome you would prefer to happen.

“I am asking you to consider our shared projects and to put the betterment of the team and company first.”

CONSEQUENCES – Specify the consequences if this happens. (Both positive and negative)

“This way we can work together as a team and it will be best for all of us.”


2. Use empathy

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. As conflict often arises from a difference in points of view, showing the other person you are capable of understanding their viewpoint will help to diffuse the situation. How to be more empathetic to someone?

Express empathy – “I understand you are disappointed.”

Rephrase what the other person just said – “I know you wanted to attend the seminar.”

Acknowledge the other person’s need – “The seminar would have been useful for you.”

Specify your own needs – “There were only a few seats available and I also needed the report you worked so hard on.”

Tell them that their reasoning is valid and you would have acted in the same way – “I would have been disappointed as well if I were in your place.”

Create a positive link to the future – “You will be the priority for the next seminar.”


3. Use “I” statements

Frame messages in terms of you and your feelings and not them or theirs. “I” statements are useful in conflict resolution because they allow the other person to understand what you are thinking and feeling without them feeling like they are necessarily the one to blame. Whereas, if you tell someone that it’s “your” fault, it will immediately put them on the defensive.

For example, instead of saying “You make me feel angry”, you could say, “I feel angry when you say that because I interpret it to mean that I caused the problem.”

By using expressions with “I”, you will avoid conflicts that could arise when the other person feels you are accusing them.


4. Use verbal communication

Do not communicate in writing when you are angry. For example, avoid responding via email. If you have no other choice, do not use bold or underline, which will come across as extremely aggressive.

Similarly, if you write in capitals and use exclamation marks, you may as well be shouting.

Never respond to an unpleasant email when you are emotional. Give yourself time to think and, if you feel the need, get a third party to read your response. Do not forget that once you have put something in writing, you cannot take it back.

Written communication can also introduce misunderstandings as people have different writing styles and your email can be easily misunderstood. So, to resolve conflict, try to use as much verbal communication as possible.

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5. Active listening

To actively listen, remain quiet, and focus on what the other person is saying. When you are actively listening, the other person will feel that you are a friend and not an enemy.

Two forms of active listening include reflective listening and paraphrasing.

In reflective listening, you summarize out loud the key elements you heard, focusing on their underlying feelings, interests, and needs. Paraphrasing is also a way of summarizing what you heard, but the focus is more on the verbal content and where a few key points need to be addressed to solve the issue.

Experience shows that it is often possible to resolve a conflict without even needing to negotiate if both parties are able to express themselves and listen to the other party.


6. Passive listening

Sometimes, people just want to be heard. They don’t need an explanation or an answer. They just need you to listen. For example, if the person is in a defensive or emotional state and anything you say could be taken the wrong way, it is better just to listen with a few subtle indications of attention.

Subtle indications of attention could include nodding your head or changing your facial expression to show empathy or making small vocal gestures.


7. Adjusting body language

Experiments by Albert Mehrabian in the late 1960s decoded inconsistent messages in communication. For example, if someone states that they are not angry but display anger in their tone and body language, the receiver will trust the predominant communication.

As per Mehrabian’s Rule, communication is 93 percent body language and tone (55 percent and 38 percent respectively) and only 7 percent content (what is being said).

So when it comes to communication, body language plays a huge role. It is important to not display aggression or indifference. You want to appear calm and confident ( even if you don’t feel like it). Keep your hands open, relaxed, and where they can be seen.

Even if it feels awkward, let your hands fall to your sides and very subtly turn them outwards towards the other person. These subtle gestures subconsciously indicate that you are open, present, and looking for a resolution.


8. Body positioning

Similar to body language, we might also consider how we stand or sit relative to the person with whom we are communicating. We don’t want to position ourselves in a way that communicates aggression or indifference.

Sitting with someone is better than standing because it makes everyone feel more relaxed, whereas standing can create tension. Make sure you are sitting at equal levels with nothing between you.

When helping others resolve a conflict or facilitating a difficult conversation, set up a triangle or circle of chairs. The more circular and less rectangular the shape is the better. circles make for more inclusive and fluid conversations.


9. Vocal tone

Use a calm, empathetic and confident vocal tone. You are too quiet or robotic, it indicates indifference or inattention.

For example, when having a conversation with someone who is upset, think of yourself as a caretaker. Think of the tone you would use to manage this pained individual.


10. Mirroring

When having conversations with others, we want to establish the feeling that we are on the same team, rather than on opposing sides. Mirroring is a technique you can use to accomplish this. In this technique, you do your best to reflect the other person’s communication style, including their body language, tone, vocal pace, volume, and speech patterns. However, you might not want to mimic them especially if they have special mannerisms.

Meeting others where they are is a generally important concept in communication theory, and mirroring others in conversations lets them know that we are with them.


11. Ask questions

Asking open-ended questions is important for allowing the other person to arrive at their own conclusions. For example, asking how they feel is more open and exploratory than asking them whether they feel sad. Because the latter is a yes-no question that presumes the emotion involved.

Ask in order to learn, not to coerce or convince or manipulate. When the other person answers, listen with the intent to understand.

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Conflict Resolution FAQ

Q1: What is conflict resolution? Conflict resolution is the process of addressing and resolving disputes or disagreements between individuals or groups. It involves finding mutually acceptable solutions and restoring harmony and cooperation.

Q2: How is trust important in conflict resolution? Trust is crucial in conflict resolution because it forms the foundation for effective communication and cooperation. Building and rebuilding trust between people is essential to understand each other’s intentions, behaviors, and perspectives, which leads to resolving conflicts successfully.

Q3: How can I communicate effectively in conflict resolution? To communicate effectively in conflict resolution, you can:

  1. Use the DESC script: Describe the situation objectively, express your feelings, specify the preferred behavior or outcome, and discuss the consequences.
  2. Practice empathy: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, understand their viewpoint, and acknowledge their needs and feelings.
  3. Use “I” statements: Frame your messages in terms of your own thoughts and feelings instead of blaming the other person.
  4. Utilize verbal communication: Whenever possible, have face-to-face or voice conversations to avoid misunderstandings that may occur through written communication.

Q4: How can I practice empathy during conflict resolution? To be more empathetic, you can:

  • Express empathy by acknowledging the other person’s emotions.
  • Rephrase what they said to show understanding and active listening.
  • Acknowledge their needs and concerns.
  • Specify your own needs to create a balanced conversation.
  • Validate their reasoning and emotions.
  • Create a positive link to the future by suggesting solutions or alternatives.

Q5: Why should I use “I” statements in conflict resolution? Using “I” statements helps to express your thoughts and feelings without blaming or accusing the other person. By using “I,” you take ownership of your emotions and avoid putting the other person on the defensive, creating a more conducive environment for resolving conflicts.

Q6: Why is active listening important in conflict resolution? Active listening is crucial because it shows respect and understanding to the other person. By remaining quiet and fully focusing on what they say, you create an atmosphere of trust and encourage open communication. Reflective listening and paraphrasing are techniques that can enhance active listening.

Q7: When should I practice passive listening during conflict resolution? Passive listening is appropriate when the other person needs to express themselves without expecting an explanation or immediate response. It can be helpful when someone is in a defensive or emotional state, allowing them to vent or share their thoughts without interruption.

Q8: How does body language impact conflict resolution? Body language plays a significant role in communication. It is important to avoid displaying aggression or indifference and instead appear calm and confident. Open and relaxed hand gestures, maintaining eye contact, and positioning yourself at an equal level with the other person can facilitate a more positive and inclusive conversation.

Q9: How should I adjust my vocal tone during conflict resolution? Using a calm, empathetic, and confident vocal tone is crucial. Avoid being too quiet or robotic, as it may convey indifference or inattention. Instead, aim for a tone that demonstrates care and understanding, particularly when engaging with someone who is upset or distressed.

Q10: What is mirroring in conflict resolution? Mirroring is a technique where you reflect the other person’s communication style, including body language, tone, vocal pace, volume, and speech patterns. It helps create a sense of alignment and understanding, showing that you are on the same team rather than opposing sides. However, be cautious not to mimic them if it may seem insincere or mocking.

Q11: Can written communication be effective in conflict resolution? Written communication can introduce misunderstandings and misinterpretations due to the lack of non-verbal cues and tone. However, if face-to-face or verbal communication is not possible, written communication can still be effective if done thoughtfully. It’s important to avoid aggressive language, use a neutral tone, and carefully consider the content to minimize potential conflicts.

Q12: How can I handle conflicts via email or written communication? When using email or written communication for conflict resolution, it’s important to:

  • Avoid responding immediately when emotions are high.
  • Take time to reflect and consider the content before sending a response.
  • Have a third party review your response to ensure clarity and appropriateness.
  • Use a neutral tone, avoiding bold, underlines, capital letters, or exclamation marks that can be perceived as aggressive.
  • Double-check for any misconstrued language or unintended negative tone.

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