Communicating In Conflict

Communication is challenging even when there isn’t a conflict. As diverse human beings we simply don’t always attribute the same meaning to the same words. How we interpret what is said to us is filtered through:

“who we are,
our background,
our education,
our values and beliefs,
our needs,
positions, jobs, and more.” vi

When we add the dimension of conflict, which often involves feelings of anger, frustration, or worry, clear and effective communication becomes even more challenging.

In the following sections we focus on two essential components of effective communication in conflict: active listening, in order to understand your co-worker’s perspective, and non-blaming assertiveness, to help him or her understand yours. Until you understand the other person’s perspective, and they understand yours, a resolution that meets both of your needs cannot be found.

Active listening vii

Active listening involves a set of interrelated skills: open-ended questioning, paraphrasing, acknowledging feelings, non-verbal encouragers and summarizing.   When used together they effectively communicate to the other person that you want to listen to them and to understand how they see the issue.

Using open-ended questions

Open-ended questions invite people into the discussion and require an individual response. They cannot be answered with merely a “yes” or “no”. Open-ended questions often begin with “What” or “How” such as, “What did you think about that?” or “How was what I did a problem for you?”  Open-ended questions also help the other person consider what is important to them about the issue.


Miscommunication happens when we assume we understand, but haven’t checked out that assumption. When we do, we may find that we are misinterpreting some of what was said, or missing some key element that is important to the other person. Paraphrasing not only checks for clarity and accuracy of understanding, but also lets the other person know they have been heard and understood.

We have all heard the communication cliché “What I hear you saying is…” and probably don’t want to sound like that when we are talking to people. It is important to use your own words and style of speaking while still letting the other person know what you have understood from what has said.

Acknowledging feelings

Often in our society we have been taught that emotions are embarrassing, especially when they surface at “inappropriate” times or places. Ignoring emotion is sometimes even viewed as good manners, so that the other person’s “embarrassing” emotion is not publicly acknowledged.

Active listening requires the acknowledgement of not only the meaning of what people say but also the other person’s emotional response. Examples are,

“I can see you are still feeling a bit angry about what happened the other day.”

“You are proud of the improvements you made.”

“You are worried about what new demands may be made on you.”

 Acknowledging emotion deepens our understanding of the issue and the meaning it has for the other person. It also communicates to the other person that you not only understand their words but also their feelings.

Non-verbal encouragers

Saying the right words means very little if our body is sending out a different message. If we really want to listen to the other person and understand things from her/his point of view we naturally face the person, make culturally appropriate eye contact, nod our head and lean toward the person slightly. These non-verbal encouragers help us demonstrate to the other person that we are listening and care about what is being said.


Summarizing is about pulling together what has been said over a period of time in a concise manner. It provides an opportunity, like with paraphrasing, for your understanding to be corrected or fine-tuned by the other person. It is also useful to demonstrate the progress that has been made and where you are in your discussion.

Being assertive and non-blaming

Active listening is about understanding the other person’s perspective. When it is your turn to explain your point of view it is important to communicate in ways that are non-blaming and appropriately assertive. Acting assertively implies an ability to speak up for yourself - your wants and needs- without putting down the other person or ignoring their legitimate wants or needs.

The following skills will assist you to discuss issues without blame or aggression.

Use “I” statements

Statements that begin with “I”, “From my perspective”, or “The way I see it…” make it clear that you are speaking for yourself. “I” statements focus on your experience, thoughts, feelings, reactions and decisions and not on any beliefs or judgments you may have made about the other person.

Sentences that begin with “You”, such as “you always” or  “you are” make broad, inaccurate generalizations about the other person and often lead to the other person feeling blamed and judged.

If you are using “I” statements it becomes difficult to make accusatory assumptions about the other person’s intentions or behaviour. “I felt intimidated by your response” has quite a different impact that “You are aggressive with me.”

Beware of “You” statements masquerading as “I” statements. For example, “I feel that you are always late for our meetings” begins with an “I” but is really a “you” statement that over-generalizes about the other person’s behaviour.   

Describe specifically what your concerns are

To be assertive involves describing to the other person, as specifically as you can, what your concern is. Being specific is very important as it gives the other person direct information regarding what it is about his or her views or behaviour that concerns you. They do not need to guess or read between the lines.

Express clearly the impact of the problem

Being assertive also involves being willing to tell the other person about your emotional response and the impact for you. Example:

“I feel frustrated and angry when the list is not ready. I depend on it to get my work done.”

This provides the person with clear information about the impact of the behaviour on you, without blame or judgement.

Specify your needs and wants

A final component of being assertive is exploring and sharing with the other person what it is you need and want in the working relationship. Being specific regarding your own needs and wants is essential information to have on the table when you begin looking at the future and at what options might work to resolve the conflict.