Conflict and the Competent Communicator
Shhh… it’s a secret: conflict is a bad thing. Isn’t that what we are taught to believe? That conflict is something to be avoided? And, who can blame us? Many negative feelings are associated with conflict—anger, fear, disgust. So, what do we do when we are faced with a conflict? Some of us deal with it head-on, others of us put it away for safe-keeping (only for them to come out later in an explosive argument) and some of us just avoid, avoid, avoid. I’m an avoider of conflict. There, I’ve said it. And, I majored in communication! But, let’s face it; I’m human, just like you.
One common misconception about conflict is that having conflict in your relationship is negative. Many researchers and scholars alike will tell you that conflict in interpersonal relationships can be healthy. Unfortunately, it’s not the conflict itself that destroys relationships, but the poor handling of conflict that can lead to their demise. While successful conflict resolution can take time and becoming a competent communicator takes practice, there are a few steps we can take to make the path to having healthy interpersonal relationships just a bit easier.
One step we can take is to stop and listen. How many times have you been in an argument with another person only to be so caught up in thinking about what you are going to say next, that you fail to truly listen to the other person’s perspective? I’ve always told my students that in any given conflict situation, there are many sides… “his”, “hers” and “the truth”. Listening is not an ability with which we are born having. It takes practice. You may not see things from that person’s perspective, but you can at least try.
Another step to successful conflict resolution is to check your perceptions. I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying, “Perception is reality.” This statement is true… to a certain extent. Perception is your reality but not necessarily the truth. Probably my favorite tool that I’ve learned over the years is direct perception checking. Let’s say a colleague comes in to work with her head down, sniffling, and speaking to no one. What would be your explanation for why she is behaving in this manner? That she is upset? That she is sick? All too often, many individuals take other’s behaviors personally. Instead, use perception checking: 1) describe the behavior; 2) interpret the behavior in two ways; 3) ask for clarification. In this example, you might say, “Hey Jessica, you seem a little down today. Are you upset about something or not feeling well? What’s up?” People are less likely to get defensive when you ask for clarification than if you said, “Boy, you are sure in a bad mood today!”
You might also think that in any given conflict situation, it can be resolved. Ahh … it’s a common myth. Do you like everyone you meet? Do you get along with everyone? Probably not. I will admit that there are certain subjects I avoid speaking about with friends and family, like politics. Sometimes, even if we’ve truly listened to the other person, engaged in perception checking, we may still not see eye-to-eye with others. In cases like these, it is best to agree to disagree and move on. Respecting our differences and not imposing our beliefs on others are just the last steps to becoming a competent communicator.
No one is perfect and not everyone is a competent communicator all the time… even for those who’ve studied communication. But we can all try to be.