Communicating Through Conflict
By Ronnie Moore
there are people, there is conflict. It affects us all. The
failure to communicate effectively, or to communicate at all, is a
leading cause of conflict’s existence and escalation. If not
confronted early and well, conflicts will escalate, negatively
affecting entire families, neighborhoods, and organizations.
can’t banish conflict from our lives, but we can communicate more
effectively through it. It’s a topic that can fill volumes, but you
can get a handle on it by using these five tips:
1. Distinguish between true conflicts and false conflicts:
Before you can think about how to communicate through a
conflict, decide whether you need to communicate at all. Not all
conflicts need to be resolved. Before you do or say anything, ask
yourself, ”Is this a true conflict or a false conflict?”
A true conflict has to be resolved. If not resolved, it will get
bigger and result in a negative consequence. Your child has a drug
problem. You and the child’s other parent have a conflict about how
to intervene. No intervention happens, and the child is not being
helped. This is a true conflict.
You and your colleague must write a grant proposal. There is
conflict about how to write the proposal and how to allocate your
time to it. As a result, there is a risk that the proposal will not
be the best it can be and might not be completed on time. There is
risk, therefore, that your organization will not receive this
much-needed grant. This is a true conflict.
False conflicts are differences that don’t have to be resolved. You
and your colleague disagree about how smart your boss is. That does
not have to be resolved for the two of you to be able to work, share
a break, or attend meetings together.
You and your spouse disagree about a movie. You don’t have to
convince your spouse that it was a great (or horrible) movie. You
don’t have to agree on the movie’s merits to be happy together.
Be careful. Choose your battles. Let the false conflicts go.
Refuse to engage in unnecessary arguments and debates. There’s
nothing wrong with a rousing political debate or a lively discussion
containing different opinions. If you get known, however, as
someone who always argues everything, you will lose your credibility
with the people around you, and they will no longer want to listen
to anything you say, even when what you have to say is important.
2. Remember that confrontation is not a dirty word:
Once you determine that you are dealing with a true conflict, you
need to communicate. Often, we don’t want to confront; we want to
avoid, and true conflict cannot be avoided. We struggle with
confrontation primarily because we confuse it with fighting, anger,
3. Get objectivity: If you’ve lost your objectivity about
someone, try to get it back before you communicate. There are two
parts of any conflict: the issue and the persons attached to the
issue. Sometimes, when conflict has gone on for a while without
being confronted, we start liking the other person less and less,
losing our objectivity. Once we can no longer be objective about
the person attached to the issue, it is difficult to effectively
communicate through that issue.
How do you regain objectivity about the person attached to your
conflict? Observe him or her. Note competences and positive
attributes. Is he a good father? Does she donate time to charity?
Try to get a more balanced view. If you can only think negative
thoughts about the other person, those thoughts will guide your
communication. Even if you choose the right words, the communication
will fail, if your face says, “You make me sick.”
4. Start on a foundation of sameness: Instead of
starting the communication with the conflict and why you’re angry,
start with something about which you do agree. Start with something
you share. “We both have worked here a long time.” “We both love
our child.” “Our friendship has helped us both through some
difficult times.” Then move to the issue causing the conflict.
This is also helpful when you’re trying to communicate with someone
you don’t like but who works with you or is a member of your family
talking about common interests and goals (such as wanting to resolve
this conflict), you can stay away from how you feel about the other
person. When you start communicating with a negative, you may
ignite immediate defensiveness and leave no positive or productive
place for the communication to go. Start on a foundation of
sameness, collaboration, and sincere desire to resolve the issue.
You can do this with integrity, no matter how you feel about the
person attached to the issue.
5. “Beat up” issues, not the people attached to the issues:
If your goal is to resolve a conflict and change another’s behavior
(what a person does or doesn’t do) for the better, your
communication has to address the behaviors. When we attack others,
they are generally going to either attack back or retreat out of a
real or perceived lack of power. Either way, the real issue will
not be resolved because when we are attacked we cannot hear, nor do
we focus on how we can change our behavior.
Calling someone lazy or a jerk or saying that he or she has a bad
attitude will get you nowhere. Telling that person what he or she
said or did that needs changing is the only chance you have to
change that behavior. If your goal is to change behavior,
communicate in behaviors.
Increasing the odds of resolving conflict requires good thinking and
good communication. Think, confront true conflicts only, choose
your battles, and focus on the behaviors that need changing, not on
the people attached to those behaviors.
* Excerpted from “Why Did I Say That?
Communicating to Keep Your Credibility, Your Cool, and Your Cash!”
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