§ Recognize the common sources of misunderstanding that can sometimes lead to conflict.
§ Understand how conflict arises in a business organization, and
§ Learn methods of communication designed to resolve misunderstanding and conflict in productive ways.
When groups of people work together, misunderstandings and conflict are inevitable. In a business organization, both misunderstanding and conflict can lead to serious problems. Misunderstanding can cause expensive mistakes and business failures, while individuals engaged in internal conflict have less time and energy to spend on working toward the organization’s goals. On the other hand, both misunderstanding and conflict are valuable tools for reaching the authentic understanding that allows a group of people to collectively accomplish a task. Misunderstandings allow the group to locate topics where clearer, more complete, or more detailed communication is needed. Similarly, conflicts are a signal that some kind of problem exists, which must be corrected if the group is to remain productive.
Very few people enjoy misunderstanding or conflict, of course, and most people will go out of their way to avoid dealing with either one. In a business organization, however, ignoring, avoiding or dismissing either one can create even more problems for the organization. If misunderstandings are dismissed as “personal problems” between individuals, the group can miss an opportunity to clarify and solidify its shared understanding. Similarly, when the causes of a conflict are ignored, the organization is in danger of ignoring dangers that could lead to serious consequences if they are not corrected.
Without a doubt, most conflict in the workplace is caused by misunderstandings of one kind or another. If these misunderstandings can be prevented in the first place, or resolved before conflict develops, communication has been used to its very best advantage. Sometimes we think only of communication when it seems to have “broken down,” failing to notice just how often a good communicator checks for misunderstanding and repairs the message so that the overall communication doesn’t break down.
Communicators should always try to avoid misunderstanding by using a clear, concise business style, of course, and following expected communication formats. Even the best communicators will sometimes find themselves misunderstood, though, or find that they sometimes have trouble understanding others. The best communicators will not simply create or listen to a message and assume that it has been understood exactly as intended. The choice of communication channels, personalities of the individuals involved and the organizational environment itself can all play a role in the final quality of communication.
Understanding the communication processes that accomplish these goals begins with an understanding of conflict itself. Many definitions of conflict emphasis the degree to which problems arise due to perceptions of divergent interests or goal incompatibility (Lulofs & Cahn, 2000 3). When communication focuses first on uncovering the sources of dissimilar perceptions of a situation, a problem can often be prevented or solved before it ever escalates to the level of conflict. When communication does uncover incompatible goals, conflict is often defined in terms of competition for scarce rewards or resources within interdependent relationships (Lulofs & Cahn, 2000 4). Participants can resolve the underlying causes of many conflicts by shifting the focus of their communication away from immediate material goals toward the more fundamental issues of maintaining the long-term relationship. Finally, conflicts are sometimes characterized as interpersonal when individuals are distressed by the methods others use to gain even common goals (Lulofs & Cahn, 2000 5). Communication that is sensitive to the personal preferences, culture and resources of participants in the relationship will allow individuals to work more productively toward their common goals.
Selecting the most effective channel of communication is, of course, an aim of quality communication processes, but sometimes, participants don’t realize they haven’t made a good choice until misunderstandings have occurred and caused a conflict to erupt. When your message doesn’t seem to have received the result you expected, one of the first things to ask yourself (or your conversation partner) is whether the message has somehow been garbled in transmission.
Email has become such a convenient tool of communication that we sometimes forget that it is not the best way to communicate everything. Conflicts can easily erupt when people don’t get all the information they need. It might take a whole series of emails to cause and unsuccessfully clarify a misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up in just a five-minute phone call.
Even more dangerous is the possibility that people will read the wrong emotions between the lines of short, cryptic email messages. If a positive relationship does not exist, email is especially bad for problem solving communication, since people will tend to take things more negatively. Even in positive relationships, email that is meant to be nasty is often misread as neutral (Davidhizar, Shearer, & Castro, 2000).
Finally, email is so simple that people sometimes do not recognize it as an important act of communication. When what you say doesn’t matter quite as much as the act of saying it, email might not do the job. Apologies, for example, are rarely as effective in email as they are in person (Davidhizar et al., 2000), and a thank you note is always more impressive when it comes as a “real” document.
Conversations are such common, everyday occurrences that people sometimes forget how important they are in the creation and maintenance of positive work relationships. Good conversation structure and careful word choice are important for making each person’s meaning clear, of course, but so are the facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures used to accompany those words.
When individuals adopt the straightforward, assertive problem-solving tone of “businesslike discussion,” disagreements are more likely to be understood as a routine aspect of organizational like. Conflict is more likely to be resolved when the conversation remains conversational, with both parties maintaining a friendly and communicative tone of voice, pleasant facial expressions, and open body position (Zivin, 1982 63-98). On the other hand, approaching the conversation as a supplicant, a critic, or a complainer is likely to elicit negative responses, giving rise to interpersonal conflict as a consequence.
Many workplace conflicts are not, in the strictest terms, conflicts at all. Resources are sufficient and goals are shared, but people nevertheless seem to be at cross-purposes. For most people, communication styles are such an important part of their own personality that how a job is done is at least as important as the job itself. Working effectively with others can thus depend on communicating effectively with those who have different communication styles.
Everyone has his or her own communication style, and misunderstandings frequently occur simply because people expect others to prefer the same style of interaction. Individuals who seem to be engaged in conflict without any real misunderstanding or different in goals will sometimes explain that they just have a “personality conflict.” While it is quite true that individuals with very different personalities can annoy each other, and even disagree about the best way to do things, allowing these differences to escalate into conflict will jeopardize the organization’s success.
At the first sign of conflict, it is a good idea to consider how differences in communication style might have created a misunderstanding. In general, the most important differences in communication style involve differences in orientation toward change and basic preferences for task or social concerns. This is a highly simplified way of looking at people, but just trying to understand how others might be different from you can provide a start toward developing a better relationship.
First, people have a general relationship with their own environments that can be described on a continuum from “adaptive” to “assertive.” An adaptive orientation is one that seeks out ways to change oneself to meet the conditions of the environment. An adaptive community, for example, might move its houses after a flood, realizing that the river is going to be around forever and fighting it seems rather silly. An adaptive individual might learn and carefully follow the rules of his or her own company, trusting them to be relevant and useful. In many ways, an adaptive orientation involves social sensitivity, but it should be more broadly understood as willingness to change to fit the environment, whether social or physical or ecological.
Conversely, an assertive orientation seeks ways to change the environment to fit the desires or values of the person. So, an assertive community would get together and raise money, if necessary, to build a levee to protect the town from the river. An assertive individual might figure out ways to change the rules of his or her own company, recognizing that the rules might be arbitrary or outdated for present conditions. In some ways, an assertive orientation can be resistant to social mores, but should also be more broadly understood as a willingness to change the environment to gain whatever goal a whole community might have.
Next, you can ask how a person prioritizes the task or the relationship. Whether it is because they have a generally thing-oriented outlook, have learned to focus on business, or are uncomfortable with strangers, some people will make task completion a priority in their lives. Others, perhaps because they have just grown up liking people, or maybe because they don’t have a lot of interest in the task at hand, will find relationships with people to be more important.
With these two dimensions, it becomes possible to predict how others around you might react to situations, making your life a little easier when you need to communicate with them effectively.
People who are interested in getting the task done and willing to play by the rules, might turn out to be great “detail” people. Task focused people who lie farther toward the assertive end of the scale, on the other hand might be more willing to look for ways to proactively solve a problem by changing the way things are done.
The adaptive person who values relationships, on the other hand, might find him or herself working hard to integrate everyone’s views to achieve harmony in the group. A people orientation in an assertive personality, on the other hand, might create a leader who is willing to promote change but sensitive to the effect of that change on others.
Communicating with people with various styles and priorities can be more fruitful if you remember that not everyone is in the same section that you are. If you are a detail person in the top left, you might feel that “getting the job done right” is the most important thing in any situation; you might respond positively when someone hands you an award for doing a perfect job on a traditionally difficult task. That doesn’t mean, however, that your co-worker, an assertive, people oriented leader, will thrive on the same kind of compliment. Hand her a comparable certificate and she might stomp off, insulted that no one has noticed her ability to lead people toward new, more creative work!
On top of these general difficulties, college students are just getting acquainted with their “adult” personalities. While you might have begun the process in high school, you probably are still in the midst of figuring out what motivates you, how you work best and how you prefer to communicate.
Probably, you have not yet developed a working vocabulary to discuss your work and communication preferences. Maybe your mother called you a “dreamer,” or your best friend says you’re “lazy.” Maybe you’ve noticed you aren’t happy when you have to stay cooped up inside. Maybe you only seem to feel happy when your desk and room are arranged just so. But, how would you explain all of this to the strangers in your new work group? You might not even be comfortable talking about these things with your mother or best friend!
The principles involved when a team balances its members’ individual work preferences and resources can help individuals communicate as well. It is important to recognize that people communicate differently, of course, but a real key to avoiding conflict is communicating in a way that accommodates another’s preferences. This is one of the few situations in which the Golden Rule can create more problems than it solves: talking to others as you would like to be talked to is not a guarantee of perfect understanding.
Orientation toward Interaction: A basic difference between extraverts and introverts involves the amount of energy involved in oral, face-to-face communication. Extraverts gain energy from conversations, finding them not merely easy, but stimulating. Introverts, on the other hand, need to work harder to maintain a conversation, and typically would not engage in one for “fun.” Approaching a situation with opposite assumptions about whether conversation will reduce or increase the workload, the stress of the situation, or the individual’s peace of mind can have significant negative impacts. The introvert finds an extravert’s suggestion to “get together and talk through the problem” as a worsening situation, while the extravert interprets the introvert’s suggestion to “take some time apart and think about things” as a refusal to deal with the problem.
Each person needs to consider how the other is likely to feel about interaction as a mode of resolving misunderstanding or conflict. When dealing with an opposite, it’s best to reach a comfortable mode of communication before trying to tackle a difficult topic.
Sensory or Intuitive Information Once a conversation has begun, the parties will need to agree on its content. Unproductive communication is often described as people “talking past each other” as they seem to miss each others’ points completely even though they both think they are talking about the “same” thing. When individuals who attend to different types of information attempt to communicate, they sometimes fail to recognize each others’ points or evidence. A person who focuses on the facts—what can be seen, touched, tasted or felt—might think she has provided all the evidence simply by listing the critical variances in the latest test batches and is growing increasing impatient with her coworker’s hypothesizing about why the variances might have occurred. Meanwhile, her conversation partner is pressing to get on to the “real” information of causes instead of looking for more and more data.
Although each person’s information is necessary to the final solution, opposites can appear to each other to be doing nothing useful. Conflict can be avoided when the problem is defined in terms of both the hard data of facts and figures and the conceptual information of relationships, causes and guesswork.
Analytical or Integrative Thinking The degree to which an individual makes decisions in a linear, focused, analytical way or as a holistic pattern match can similarly affect communication choices. For a person who believes that problem solving ought to involve carefully locating and assessing each element of data and comparing them in a careful process of analysis, conflict can be avoided by methodically assessing the interests, resources, individual needs and so on. The very “messiness” of a situation is often presumed to have created the problem. A holistic thinker, on the other hand, can become irritable and frustrated when all the pieces of the puzzle can’t be evaluated in context. It is missing the interrelationships among the bits of information that is often presumed to cause difficulty.
Deciding to Decide A common cause of conflict occurs when co-workers reach the stage of making a decision. Some individuals are comfortable with the judgment process and look forward to the point when the research and discussion is over. Their opposites would prefer to gather more ideas, more perspectives, more information, and no decision is ever be so final that it can’t be revisited if the situation changes. When these two people work out their differences, conflict can arise simply because they can’t agree that the time is right to decide.
Often an external force breaks the impasse; a deadline or customer expectation forces the issue, but the underlying “personality” conflict remains. Or, the decision is made but the situation does change and personalities clash over whether changes can or should be entertained. In the long term, both deadlines and change are a reality of organizational life, and these opposites are often best served by “taking turns” as their own preferences best meet the needs of the situation.
Overall, individuals need to consider the approach the other would find most helpful in resolving the conflict. The goal when working with an opposite is to find a way to approach the problem that utilizes both analytical and integrative thought processes, recognizing that a better solution will be found with both perspectives.
Whenever individuals are uncomfortable about engaging in some communication event, there is a tendency to see it as a source of conflict. The normal anxieties of stage fright, for example, are interpreted as concern about the way an audience might react to the speech, and the speaker begins to see the event as a source of potential conflict. Similarly, the writer of a memo considering the audience’s reaction to a negative decision might begin to focus on the potential conflict of the situation rather than the strategic elements of the message itself.
The reality is that much workplace communication occurs because there is some kind of disagreement or concern about resources, goals, or lack of information. Any communication under these circumstances has the potential to either resolve the issue or produce conflict. The good communicator does not avoid communication because it might produce conflict; he engages in communication in a way that the issue is resolved without creating additional conflict.
When communication occurs in response to some kind of negative event—credit has been denied, sales are down, quality criteria have been missed—the participants are often angry, frustrated or worried. Communicators in these situations need to be careful to consider the emotional impact of any messages, and to pay particular attention to the ways in which communication can reduce the effect of negative emotions.
The number one reason people get fired is anger, and the number one problem people have anger at work is not being “heard and respected” (Anderson)
Emotional outbursts can be frightening and upsetting to everyone in the organization, but the long term condition of workplace stress can have even more damaging consequences. Without an immediate event to trigger emotional reactions and thus bring attention to the problem, people can suffer from stress without even realizing that their mood, thinking patterns and work productivity are being undermined. Communication can seem to produce even more tension and ultimately conflict, but an immediate cause of the problem is not apparent unpleasant personalities, poor communication skills, or lack of skill with the job are presumed to be the source.
Even the friendliest of co-workers can become snappy and mean when they are under stress. Clear thinking can be difficult, and people can begin to focus on information or relationships that are not relevant to the task at hand. In general, people who are stressed tend to do more of what they already know they do best. So, the detail person who is under pressure really digs into those details, and the problem-solver tries to put all her problem-solving skills to work at once.
The result, however, can be a case of overkill. The integrator is out there on the edge trying to get everyone to approve of his efforts, whether approval really makes any difference at all. The natural leader who is under pressure to perform might start to do nearly “anything” to get others’ attention. Stop for a minute and ask yourself whether the “difficulty” the person is exhibiting is actually the very same strength or talent that you value highly most of the time. If it is, you might look for source of stress (either your own or the other’s) and solve that problem instead of thinking you “can’t communicate” with the person.
Many situations in which people seem to be behaving badly can be the result of emotional responses or stress reactions, but sometimes there seems to be no cause at all. Whether because of long term psychiatric issues, medical conditions, or just plain nastiness, there will always be a few individuals who are consistently difficult to communicate with. Communicating in these circumstances calls for particular attention to the context and to the long term relationship.
Sometimes organizational policies or employment law create a situation in which a person is kept on the payroll even though he or she is unable or unwilling to interact productively with others. Sometimes a supervisor is able to assign such a person to a private area or highly individualized tasks in order to reduce his or her impact on others, but often there will be at least minimal contact as work is passed from one person to another.
Working with such a person can be frustrating, but everyone in the organization will benefit when co-workers work together to minimize the negative impact.
At least 80% of entry level workers will be dealing with customers in some capacity , and unless the position is in sales or marketing, most of those customers have a problem of some kind. While there might be a legitimate reason to be angry or stressed by the situation. Preventing conflict by building solid relationships can be more difficult with customers, since most interactions are with individuals you’ve never met before.
When responding to a complaint, make two assumptions: that the complaint has some merit, at least in the customer’s mind, and that any hostility is atypical for the person and merely caused by the situation. From this perspective, it will be easier to communicate with the tone of a friend.
humor You need not be a comedian to appreciate the humor of the human condition, and humor in communication exchanges can be an incredible relationship builder. One business traveler describing the unusual but appreciated humor and personality in the routine legalese of airline safety instructions remarked “For a few moments we let down. We laughed together, and as we laughed we were reminded of our common humanity” (Wilbers, 1998).
“you attitude” This principle is stressed with “frantic enthusiasm” in customer service training (Baldwin), but extra effort in understanding the other person’s perspective is important when communication with a stranger. Neither you nor the customer has any knowledge of the other’s personality or background and you are both relying exclusively on language cues. Be particularly careful, then, to use language that does not imply your company’s needs are more important than the customer’s.
Just saying “you” more than you say “we” is not enough. Consider these two choices:
“you have misused your product”
“we are sorry the instructions were not clear”
Nor is it acceptable to express the customer’s side of the story with a patronizing tone that belittles his or her apparent business sense:
“Your inability to pay this bill is understandable. Get back to us when you can.”
The point is to recognize the customer’s benefit, desires, needs and to put them ahead of your own. Always respond promptly, which sends the message that you value the customer’s time, and create a message that is longer or more formal than the one you received, which is a sign of respect. A customer who expends a large amount of energy crafting a long letter is likely to be offended by a two sentence email response, even when the answer is positive!
Perhaps the most difficult of difficult people is a worker’s own supervisor. Not only is the relationship unpleasant, but it can have serious economic and career repercussions if not handled well. Naturally, emotional responses and stress can have an impact on supervisors, just as they do for colleagues and customers. Although we all have a desire to work for an “ideal” boss who is never angry and never overwhelmed, that is simply an unrealistic expectation. Patience, kindness, and an assumption of good will can help avoid conflicts with supervisors, just as they do for othersIf it’s any consolation, angry people die earlier and neurotic managers earn at least $16,000 per year below the average of their peer group
An additional source of difficulty often arises, however, because of the hierarchical relationship between a supervisor and the employee. Each person might have a different expectation of how that power-relationship ought to be handled. Typically, the boss expects more compliance on the basis of his or her position, and employees resist, demanding more information, more explanation, or simply more personal attention before obeying a directive. Communication with a difficult supervisor must thus take into account not only the interpersonal aspects of the relationship, but its hierarchical aspects as well.
Sometimes conflict seems to come out of nowhere. Certainly, most people find arguments, hard feelings, and disagreements to be unpleasant and stressful, and many individuals will avoid dealing with problems at all in order to avoid the unpleasant prospect of conflict. Had they seen conflict coming, of course, most people would have taken steps to correct a misunderstanding before it created a real problem, but all too often they are suddenly facing an angry colleague with no idea how the situation has developed. The first step in productively resolving a conflict is thus to understand how it developed in the first place. Although many people think of conflict in terms of the negative emotions of a fight, a more careful definition emphasizes the source of conflict as an interaction of interdependent people who perceive there to be some incompatibility in their goals, aims or values, and who see the other party as potentially interfering with achieving these goals, aims or values (Folger, Poole, & Stutman, 2001; Frost & Wilmot, 1978; Putnam & Poole, 1987). That is, there wouldn’t be any thing to fight about if people didn’t feel they were in each others’ way in some concrete way.
Simply avoiding the fight does not resolve the underlying conflict, and can sometimes turn a small incompatibility into an insurmountable barrier. The various symptoms of emotional distress that we associate with conflict are not healthy behaviors in the workplace. Arguing, animosity, criticism, and defensiveness are maneuvers people use to get their own way without communicating about the issues directly, and should be avoided. A good communicator will do more, however, learning to evaluate a conflict situation and thus discover effective ways of resolving the underlying problem.
Each situation is unique, and there can be complicated overlaps, but the sources of conflict are generally divided between substantive goal conflicts that have to do with the work task itself, process conflicts that occur when participants disagree about how to go about working on the task, and emotional conflicts that relate to personal responses to situations (Nicotera, 1997).
With all the emphasis on reducing misunderstanding with communication, it’s important to realize that some conflicts come about because we understand each other perfectly: we want different things. More importantly, we want different things that can’t be obtained simultaneously. The simple fact that business organizations are comprised of multiple functional areas virtually guarantees that conflicts will arise.
The business goals of various departments and divisions of a company are likely to be different, and can be oppositional at the level of individual or group tasks. Even though everyone might recognize their goals are designed to achieve a common organizational goal, the structure of the organization requires conflict.
The complexity of most businesses also positions individuals within multiple groups, sometimes crossing department lines or organizational boundaries, which can also have conflicting goals or interests.(Nicotera, 1997)
In any business organization, resources are limited, and some issues arise when there is not enough time, money or material to meet everyone’s needs, or when meeting one person’s need causes harm of some kind to another business unit.
In any large organization, the diversity of cultural backgrounds and personality types will inevitably lead to some conflicts about how communication ought to be done. Conflict is less frequent when a group shares underlying rhetorical norms about who ought to participate in decisions, what the basis for those decisions ought to be, and how the decision-making process should work (See Chapter One). Similarly, individuals who share a cognitive style will find themselves to be more “compatible” because they prefer to communicate about goal conflict in generally the same way (See Chapter Ten).
Many process conflicts have their root in the values that communities or individuals place on their own preferred ways of doing things. Either because of their own success with a given method, or because they’ve internalized the norms in terms of “ethical” or “smart” or “decent” behavior, differences can seem highly important.
Each individual enters any interaction with an expectation of the relationship, and misunderstandings of each others’ intentions or incompatible goals for the relationship can create conflicts.
Most people are strongly affected by threats to their self-esteem and positive identity. Nobody likes to look foolish, immature, weak, or incompetent, and situations that create a negative image can easily give rise to emotional conflict.
“The influence of of workplace diversity on reactions of prospective and current white employees is moderated by their diversity experiences in the communities in which they live”(830). In a study of negative reactions to group/organizational diversity can be predicted by previous interaction with diverse (black) community and previous ethnic conflict (Brief et al., 2005).
Virtually any detour on a person’s path toward a goal is likely to evoke an emotional response of some kind. Virtually any change from the normal routine or an unexpected outcome can lead to anxiety, frustration or anger.
Regardless of the underlying issue, its resolution will depend on a communication process to locate a solution and take steps to avoid the same issue in the future. Simply avoiding the symptoms of conflict by refusing to address issues does nothing to resolve the issue; everyone in the business is put at risk when problems are left unsolved. Similarly, calming people’s emotions with supportive behaviors or empty promises to solve the problem is an unproductive and dangerous way to “resolve” conflict.
There are three basic ways to address conflict: avoidance, defusion and confrontation. Avoidance can be appropriate when there are negligible consequences or when one or both parties are unable or unprepared to confront the issues at that time. If there are significant consequences of the conflict, avoidance should be understood as only a short term delay.
Defusion involves minimizing the effects of the conflict—placing difficult topics on the meeting agenda late so that people won’t have energy to fight; transferring a person to another shift so that interaction with others is limited—but similarly fails to address the underlying issues that have caused the conflict.
Confrontation does not imply a “fight” but honest communication about the issues that give rise to the conflict. Good conflict resolution procedures require a willingness to resolve the underlying issue, not merely address the emotional symptoms. A few basic rules of problem-solving communication can make the process most productive.
The lack of available resources or failure of a system to accomplish organizational purposes might seem to be an objective “cause” of conflict, but these environmental factors don’t become conflict without communication, which defines the issues as conflict, fosters the emotional climate in which the issues must be resolved, and directs the pattern of interactions among the parties to the conflict (Putnam, 1988). People “create their conflict experience as they communicate” (Collins, 2005 3), and attention to the communication can turn a situation with significant potential for harm into an opportunity for organizational development.
Nearly anyone who works extensively with conflict and conflict resolution will recommend that a specific conflict resolution procedure be followed. Many companies have instituted specific procedures to follow, and some will provide training to their employees on how conflicts ought to be resolved. For example, your company might use consultant Patricia Gulbranson’s model, assigning an “issue coordinator” to coordinate problem solving efforts, keeping “issue log” to insure that everyone’s concerns are heard, and following specific rules and time limits for discussion of the issues (Gulbranson, 1998).
The supervisory communication flow chart is another procedure for making sure that an issue is completely explored before disciplinary action is taken against an employee.
This procedure requires participants to resolve the issue in a step-by-step manner:
Step One: Make sure all parties are aware that an issue-resolution conversation is taking place. The conversation need not be held in a private office to be effective, although you should seek privacy if emotions are running high or the issue is very sensitive.
Step Two: Clearly state the expected event or situation, and the actual event or situation. Do not introduce emotions into the conversation at this point, or create defensiveness by expressing criticism or judgment. Start by making sure that everyone knows exactly what behavior had been agreed on, and exactly what behavior actually occurred. Be careful to state the issue in terms of observable, concrete behaviors rather than statements about feelings or vague goals, which are likely to create defensiveness.
A clear statement of the issue also avoids any judgment or evaluation. Don’t try to put words in the other person’s mouth or make the other person feel guilty. Just state the situation.
Step Three: Identify the reason the expected situation did not occur. Was there a misunderstanding of the expectations? If so, clarify them for the future. If everyone involved understood the expectations in the same way, the conversation should proceed to an exploration of the causes for the actual situation. Did someone choose to do something different? Did some barrier exist which prevented people from doing as they had intended? What one person saw as a barrier might look like a choice to someone else, and this conversation can resolve the issue by identifying resources or procedures to prevent future discrepancies.
Step Four: If a choice was made and others disagree with the allocation of time, money or energy resources, the issue has reached the stage where decision-making communication must begin. Whether this is a unilateral decision on the part of an employee to comply with company procedures, or a company-wide decision to reallocate scarce resources, what appeared to be a conflict has not become an opportunity for productive decision-making.
Issue resolution doesn’t always take a long time, but it might. Often, people avoid resolving their conflicts because they simply don’t want to invest the time and energy in a long, uncomfortable conversation. If you are unwilling to address an issue, at least admit that to yourself and your colleagues. It’s not businesslike, but it’s honest.
Perhaps the most common cause of an issue is a difference of opinion about how things were “supposed” to happen. The underlying cause might be a true misunderstanding, or it could be the failure of one person to comply with the issue of the other. In all cases, though, the communication must begin with a clarification of what was expected and what actually happened.
Expectations are often framed in terms of responsibilities not met (“My co-worker did not provide the data when she promised.”), but they can also relate to role expectations (“My intern is not showing the polite behaviors I think interns should demonstrate.”) or communication styles (“John never smiles in the morning like a normal, friendly worker should.”).
An issue is any condition or situation that is not as you expected, or not as you wish it to be. It is perfectly normal and healthy for people to disagree about how things ought to be, to express those disagreements, and to seek ways to work together in spite of them. In fact, good business decision-making depends on the ability of people to think about all the different ways things could be, before they take action. Being able to recognize an issue and discuss it with others is an important part of being an effective businessperson.
Any issue resolution procedure can degenerate quickly if individuals allow themselves to indulge in the emotional symptoms that make conflict so unpleasant. Sometimes a few deep breaths and waiting a few moments for the anger or disappointment to subside are enough. More often, though, good communication habits are the product of practice in conflict reducing techniques.
Delivering negative appraisals of another person’s work, decision-making, or planning procedures is never a pleasant task. The situation is often made more complicated by a lack of training. Many people were taught as a child, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” and they have simply never learned how to say anything that might be construed as “not nice.” A productive workplace depends, however, on the ability of co-workers to warn each other when things are not going well.
In a business situation, negative information is virtually always being delivered within a long-term relationship where your personal image, credibility and goodwill are important. This is not a situation in which you can “tell someone off” and walk out of his or her life. Your conversation (or document) should begin by defining the situation as a positive one. Establish the relationship carefully, positively but honestly. Don’t try to sneak bad news into a letter, for instance, “sandwiching” the bad news in between the “nice things” that you’ve tried to think of. It is far better to call someone up and say, “I like you John, but I’ve got to tell you some bad news.”
· Be clear about the bad news. Whether you are delivering negative information, criticism, an unfavorable decision, or a statement of the negative consequences that are about to result because of the listener’s previous choice or error, be clear. In particular, be clear that the news is bad. People will misinterpret information in the most ore favorable way they possibly can. Don’t hint, hide or allow for misinterpretation. The result might sound blunt to you, but it will be more effective communication.
· Give the reasons. The body of the message should provide the facts, reasons and explanations in an appropriate mix, to adequately explain the negative situation. If you have made a decision, explain why. If you disagree with another person’s goals or priorities, explain what yours are. If you feel important information was ignored, explain what it is, and explain the goals you are trying to reach. When you are trying to move from conflict to decision-making, it becomes even more important that you lay all the cards on the table.
· Offer choices. Regardless of the issue, those who are engaged in resolving it probably face a variety of possible actions. Good criticism of one action will offer a constructive repair, a choice of options, or an alternative action. Your critical communication should invite the other person to choose another option that is more productive.
· Build the relationship. Finally, even the most severe criticism should close with a constructive, relationship building action step. The point of giving the constructive criticism is to build the business relationship, and that should be the ultimate focus of the communication.
Remember that your communication is designed to foster communication, never to cut it off. This means you should create a message that diffuses anger and defensiveness, and avoid doing things that cause others to feel threatened or demeaned.
· Speak to the right person. Don’t delivery your criticism to a person who has no authority to change the situation. This would be termed “bitching” and is not appropriate in a business environment. Complain only to those who have the ability to make some kind of change. Of course, once a person has indicated that he or she is unwilling to comply with your request, continued criticism is also unacceptable. That would be “nagging” and is equally unacceptable.
· Stick to the facts. Don’t offer unsupported judgments of another person’s attitude or choices. The focus should always be on the facts of the situation—the agreed upon procedures, the actual outcome or the information that supports your case.
· Give positive signals. Take care that your non-verbal communication does not subvert whatever message you might be creating with words. The non-verbal “willingness to communicate” signals will mean far more to the other person than your words.
Naturally, sometimes you will be on the receiving end of criticism. Whether it is justified or not, and whether or not the person delivering it does a good job, you should respond in a way that focuses on the issue to be resolved, not on you own defensive reaction.
Of course, you would never want to respond with a criticism in return, or with an emotional outburst. A more subtle defensive response, that is equally unproductive, is to respond with an excuse or a denial. Unjustified responses to criticism that place change beyond the possibility of correction are a form of defensiveness (e.g.. “I couldn’t help it.”)
Instead of communicating that he or she is putting up defensive walls, the good communicator will send a message that encourages further interaction:
Listen carefully, without interrupting but instead using active listening skills of questioning, paraphrasing and feedback. That alone will send the message that you are willing to continue the communication, but your goal is also to determine the speaker’s underlying intent, which might be buried under a few layers of anger or fear.
Acknowledge the speaker’s message in some way, looking for a way to agree with something or find a place where you have some common interest. You might agree that the situation appears negative, or that certain events did take place. This does not mean to simply agree with the criticism, especially if you intend to ignore it. You must actively find a point to begin constructive communication about the issue.
Acknowledge means letting the other person know that you’ve heard the message. Acknowledging is not agreeing. Acknowledging is not yielding. Apologizing or promising to “do better” next time does not resolve the conflict at all. That merely adds to the wall of misunderstanding between two people and over time makes the conflict worse.
Respond with a constructive comment or question. Never, ever respond with an excuse or explanation, which is merely a defensive wall that attempts to redefine the other person’s complaint. Instead, ask for additional information or clarification. You might ask for clearer criteria for future work, or for more facts about the situation. You might find some aspect of the problem that you can agree with, or at least with a perception of the problem that needs to be corrected.
Finally, recognize that interpersonal communication includes much more than the messages you send. Good communication in the business world depends equally on your ability to respond appropriately to the words and signals of others. Most of the time, the appropriate response is simply to provide the information requested in a concise, clear and useful format. Sometimes, though, people are not simply requesting information. They are also expressing normal human emotions, which might not even have anything to do with the business purposes of the communication.
· Your boss requests some statistics, thinking about the big trouble she is going to be in if the report isn’t to her manager in time. Instead of a simple request, she snarls at you.
· Your co-worker, recently broken up with his girlfriend, forgets to give you all the details about the afternoon’s meeting, forcing you to ask several questions to clarify his instructions.
· A customer calls, angry and confused about a product, and starts the conversation by yelling, as though you had something to do with the problem.
People’s emotions can’t ever be separated from life in the business organization, but your success will often depend on bringing the conversation back to the business topic at hand. You can’t reduce your boss’s stress, help your co-worker with his relationship issues, or fix the customer’s product. You can communicate in a way that lets them know you are willing to do what it takes to work productively together anyway.
The stresses of business will inevitably create tensions, and people will inevitably become angry, frustrated or unhappy while they are at work. People express their emotions in a variety of ways; some control the outward signs until they can punch a pillow at home. Others yell at co-workers without thinking, but quickly apologize and maintain good relationships overall. Some stay very quiet, but their emotions simmer for days or weeks.
Regardless of how people express their emotions, task related communication is generally more productive after the emotions have subsided. You can’t control how another person handles emotions, but you can see that your own response reduces their effect on the communication:
Control your body language. Your own response to another person’s emotional state will serve as a cue for the appropriate next action.
Refocus attention. Once emotions come to the surface, they become the focus of attention, but productive solutions need to focus on the underlying problem.
Take a time out. If you find that another person’s emotions are causing your own emotions to rise, you might need to delay the communication until you can both proceed more calmly.
Once you have moved the conversation out of the realm of emotions and into a rational, objective discussion of your work, you’ll find that you can begin to collaborate on finding a real solution to the problem.
Criticism is another fact of life in the business organization. Of course, you can’t expect to do everything perfectly all the time, and some of your decisions might be wrong. Still, it never feels good to hear the criticism, even when it’s deserved. Just as often, you’ll be criticized for doing things that you thought were correct. After all, people seldom set about to deliberately make mistakes! Even when you are doing the best job you possibly can, you’ll discover that you’ve used incorrect or incomplete data, or made invalid assumptions, and others will find a reason to criticize you. Sometimes others are simply having a bad day themselves and looking for things to complain about.
Whether the criticism is justified or not, your response should always indicate a positive willingness to reconsider your information, assumptions and decisions to improve the quality of the organization’s work. You should give all the cues that indicate your willingness to communicate about the issue, rather than display the verbal or non-verbal defenses that block further discussion.
Ask for more information. The most direct way to indicate that you are willing to discuss the situation is to answer the attack with a question. Clarify the details of the complaint or the expectations the other person has of you.
Agree with something. You don’t need to agree with the criticism to be able to agree that the person has a problem! You can agree that the facts of the situation are correct, that the other person has perceived the situation in a certain way, or that others will interpret things negatively.
Stay on the subject. Criticism is unpleasant. It can be tempting to change the subject to something else, but that simply sends a message that you don’t want to address the issue. Launching into a list of reasons you made the decision, criticisms of the other person or denials are guaranteed to prolong the argument and make solving the actual problem even more difficult.
As your boss begins to point out the errors in your analysis, you launch into a list of the people who refused to give you information during the project. Rather than listen carefully to you and solve your problem, the boss now decides that you have no talent for working collaboratively with others! You’d be better off to acknowledge that you were concerned about some of the numbers and would like to discuss ways of getting better quality information next time.
Once you have responded in a way that indicates your willingness to communicate, you can proceed to a discussion of the underlying situation. You can eventually explain your reasoning, clarify the facts of the situation or even discuss any criticisms you might have of the other person. These should always come after you have responded non-defensively and indicated your willingness to communicate productively.
Regardless of the issue, or of the other person’s ability to communicate productively, excellent communication in a conflict situation always includes excellent listening skills. Listen for the other person’s intended meanings, not simply what he or she says aloud. Check for your own understanding, asking questions and paraphrasing to determine the other person’s actual knowledge of the situation, personal involvement, and emotional response.
Simply understanding each other’s positions is not enough to resolve a conflict between two people. If there are not enough resources to do what both want, or if they value different things at a cultural or personal level, the conversation will have to turn toward finding an alternative action that is acceptable to both. This path might not meet all the needs of either person, but it will be “good enough” to allow them to work together toward a common goal.
Very often, only one person in the conflict is willing to communicate about common goals. A person in the business environment who is unwilling to compromise or negotiate is generally considered a “difficult” person to work with. A business organization is unable to function when its members do not work collectively, so the obstinate and uncooperative person will often be left out of the decision making process as much as possible.
Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to persuade such people to go along with others’ desires in spite of their opposition. Guiding the conversation through three steps of reconciliation can sometimes create enough common ground to get things rolling(Brinkman & Kirschner, 2002):
· Spend a significant part of the conversation listening carefully. Use active listening skills to discover the values, presumptions and emotional connections the obstinate person has to his or her position.
· Thinking in terms of underlying personality goals and values, redefine the situation in terms of values or goals you both share.
· Finally, guide the conversation toward directing the other person’s natural tendencies and emotional energy toward the common goal.
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