In 2023, I wrote a series of blogs exploring key conflict competencies—i.e., core skills for making conflict productive. These competencies are summarized in my blog “What is Conflict Competence and What Are the Core Conflict Competencies?”
There are two competencies I identified in that blog that I have yet to fully describe: communication and commitment.
In this blog, I am going to discuss communication. In my next blog, I’ll dive into commitment.
Let’s start by being clear about what I mean by “communication.”
What does communication mean?
Communication means “the act of communicating.” Depending on which dictionary you look at, to communicate means some version of “to convey knowledge or information;” “to make known;” or “to share information with others by speaking, writing, moving your body, or using other signals.” The word comes from Latin roots in “to make common.” The Indo-European root of common means “shared by all.”
In line with the roots of the word, I suggest that we understand communication—true, effective communication—to mean acting in such a way as to make knowledge or information shared by all. In other words, real communication is about using our various means of imparting information (whether speaking, writing, moving, or otherwise) to create shared understanding among involved parties.
Unfortunately, often when we are “communicating,” we aren’t really communicating at all—i.e., we aren’t creating (and often we aren’t even trying to create) shared understanding. Instead, we may be “talking at” each other, or trying to convince each other of something. Or we may be interpreting what the other person is saying through our own biased lens, rather than truly trying to understand what it is they are trying to convey. Or we may simply not be paying attention to, or actively trying to tune out, what the other person is trying to relay.
This is why, as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw supposedly said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Why effective communication is a key for productively working through conflict
It may be obvious to many readers why communication is key for productively working through conflict, but—just to make sure I’m effectively communicating—let’s walk through some of the key reasons.
First and foremost, a lot of what we consider to be “conflict” is not actually conflict—it is confrontation caused by miscommunication. Reminder: Conflict is the intersection of different ideas, perspectives, wants, or needs that are in tension with each other and not easily reconciled. Often, due to poor communication, we think we have different ideas, perspectives, wants, or needs that are in tension with each other when, in reality, this is not the case and there is no conflict.
When there truly is a conflict, poor communication will often make this difference feel intractable or unresolvable. A common example of this is when parties focus on positions (i.e., specific solutions for solving a problem) instead of core interests (i.e., underlying needs and concerns) when dealing with conflict, as I discussed in my blog “Want to Make Conflict Productive? Focus on What Really Matters.” Similarly, poor listening and poor framing often make it difficult to understand what parties really need and, thus, get in the way of productively working through conflict.
When we effectively communicate through conflict, involved parties can create shared understanding of what really matters and what would be a truly productive outcome. This enables them to get creative and to co-create mutual gains outcomes. And when parties do this, more often than not, they are able to smoothly and productively work through the conflict—so much so that they may not even realize they had a conflict, or the conflict felt more like an opportunity than a challenge.
How do you “do” effective communication?
So how do you go about communicating in a way that creates shared understanding?
Communication always occurs between two entities. On one end, you have the deliverer—the person who is trying to communicate something. On the other end, you have the receiver—the person with whom the deliverer is trying to communicate. In a typical conversation, people bounce between being the deliverer and the receiver, but at any given time, people are playing one or the other role.
It takes two to tango, and it takes two to communicate. Both parties involved in the transfer of information have an important role to play in ensuring effective communication is occurring.
Regardless of whether you are playing the role of deliverer or receiver, the first step in communicating effectively is to approach the situation with the goal of creating shared meaning. When we bring this intention to our efforts to communicate, it directly affects how we behave and, thus, affects whether communication effectively occurs.
Unfortunately, we often approach our interactions with each other with a desire to prove ourselves right or prove the other person wrong (which, by the way, is a reflection of our tendency to approach the world in a scarcity/win-lose way). Or we approach conversations in a very dysregulated way, simply wanting the situation to go away. If our true intention is to do anything other than to create shared understanding, it is difficult, if not impossible, to behave in ways that will support effective communication.
The good news is that the opposite is also true: When we approach our interactions with the true intention to effectively communicate, we set ourselves up for success in behaving in ways that make it easy for people to create shared understanding. Two of these key behaviors are effective listening and effective framing.
What is effective listening?
Effective listening is listening with the intent to truly understand what the other person is trying to communicate. In other words, it is not simply hearing what someone is saying but rather receiving what it is they mean to convey.
We communicate more through non-verbal means—such as body language, facial expressions, tone, loudness, and way of speaking—than we do through the words we say. Therefore, effective listening requires what is sometimes called “active listening,” i.e., paying attention to much more than what the deliverer is verbalizing. Importantly, to effectively listen, we not only need to pay attention to non-verbal cues; we also need to interpret all of the signals we are getting from a deliverer through the lens of truly trying to understand what it is that they want or need to convey.
Some of the core elements of effective listening include focusing on truly trying to understand, practicing curiosity, being attentive, being inviting, clarifying, confirming, and pausing. Asking open-ended, non-leading questions is also an important part of effective listening. To learn more about effective listening and each of these elements, see the EDR program’s handout on effective listening.
Not only is it important for us to effectively listen to others, we have to effectively listen to ourselves. In order to effectively deliver what it is we want to communicate, we first have to do our own work of understanding what it is that we mean to convey. This requires approaching our inner workings with a desire to truly understand what matters to us, which in turn requires implementing the same elements of effective listening that we would offer others—such as being curious about and attentive to our own needs.
Despite the fact that effective listening is a core skill for co-existing well with others and for self-understanding, it is not something that most of us naturally do or are taught to do. That is why, instead of listening effectively, many of us find ourselves jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, filling in the blanks when someone else is talking, thinking about what we are going to say rather than focusing on what the other person is trying to communicate, and/or ignoring important signals our body and emotions are giving us instead of listening to what they are trying to help us understand.
Given our tendencies, for most of us, effective listening is an act of will–it is something we have to intentionally choose to do, and it is probably something we need to practice to become good at.
What is effective framing?
How we deliver information is just as important as how we receive it. Effective framing is about delivering information in a way that makes it easier for the receiver to actually receive what is being communicated and, thus, helps build shared understanding.
Here are some key elements of effective framing. See the EDR program’s effective framing and reframing handout for more information about effective framing and how to do it.
- Focus on the problems, not the people: Don’t make things personal (i.e., about yourself or others); instead, focus on the challenge and/or opportunity that brings you into interaction with each other.
- Focus on interests, not positions: Don’t focus on specific solutions or strategies, or how someone proposes to address a problem or situation (i.e., positions); instead, focus on underlying needs and concerns (i.e., interests), which may be substantive, procedural, and/or emotional. See this handout for more information on interests vs positions.
- Focus on assets, not deficits: Don’t define situations or people by their problems or limitations; instead, define them by their assets, opportunities, and aspirations.
- Be responsive, not reactive: Don’t be driven by your emotions or see yourself as being “acted upon”; instead understand, communicate, and validate how you and others are feeling, and focus on your and other people’s agency to respond to the situation.
When it comes to effectively delivering information, it also helps to:
- Frame things from our own point of view, such as “I am noticing…” or “I feel like…”
- Use tentative (or what some people call “provisional”) language, i.e., language that is not overly certain, such as “Maybe…” or “It seems like…”
- Create space for different perspectives and experiences, such as by:
- Asking questions along the lines of “Has that been your experience?” or “What do you think?” or “What ideas do you have for how to address this challenge?”
- Applying what I call a “yes and” frame that acknowledges and creates space for different perspectives and experiences. This may look something like: “I hear that is important to you. These things are important to me. Is there anything we can do to address both of our concerns?”
Want to make conflict productive—and generally make your life easier? Become a better communicator!
For anyone who wants to avoid destructive conflict and/or simply wants to make their life easier, I highly recommend investing in improving your communication skills. A good place to start is working on effective listening and effective framing.
The good news is that, with a little effort, we can all learn to communicate more effectively and navigate conflict more productively—and every conversation is an opportunity to practice!
Danya Rumore, Ph.D., is the director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a research professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a clinical associate professor in the city and metropolitan planning department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the founder and a co-director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.
About the EDR blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) program, the EDR blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional blog posts at edrblog.org.