When Words Collide – Communicating in a Conflict


No matter how open your lines of communication are, it’s inevitable that communication will sometimes go wrong. It may seem absolutely impossible to reach the other party, as if everything you say is misunderstood and twisted around to be an attack (or vice versa). There are ground rules to communicating in a conflict and, if you follow these, you can reach a resolution that satisfies both parties.

Take Responsibility

In any kind of conflict, take responsibility for your feelings. Never blame the other person for ‘making’ you think or feel something. Instead, whenever expressing your opinion, tell them ‘I feel like,’ or ‘It seems to me that,’ etc. Even if you’re in the wrong, at least you’ve owned up to the fact that you’re wrong and not tried to pin it on the other party.

No Absolutes

Avoid using the words ‘always’ and ‘never.’ For example, don’t say, ‘You never meet the deadlines we set.’ These types of concrete words make the condition sound terminal, unchangeable, and impossible to solve. Using absolutes is counterproductive, as you’re talking about a behavior you expect the other party to change. Instead, focus on action. For example, say, ‘Please tell me in advance if a deadline is unrealistic so that we can plan better.’

The Y-Word

Try to use the word ‘you’ as little as possible. It can be unavoidable grammatically, so you’ll need to use it sometimes. The problem is that in conflicts, it has a confrontational connotation that puts people on the defensive. An alternative is to use ‘we’ whenever possible.

Listen and Ask Questions to Clarify

Focus on trying to understand the other party’s situation and feelings rather than asserting your own, and don’t assume that you know how they feel. Listen attentively to them when they’re explaining and ask questions to clarify. If both parties understand the other’s opinion without judgment, a solution is almost within reach.

Mind Your Manners

If communicating over email, take pains to be extra polite. With any kind of written communication, including social media, you can’t see the other person’s facial expressions or hear their tone of voice. It’s easy for things to be taken the wrong way.

Fighting Dirty

If things are especially tense, take time out. Try to take emotions out of the equation as much as possible. Anger needs to be defused, or a solution will never be reached. Never use personal attacks or rough language.

If it’s simply impossible to talk to the other party without anger, put your words into writing. Each of you can read at his or her leisure and think before responding. This way, you can hear each other out. Another option that might help is to involve a mediator who is an objective third party.

Know Your Role

During a conflict, keep in mind your professional roles. For example, you might be the supervisor, while the other person is the new employee. You might be a service provider and the other person an irate client. Use tone and language that is appropriate for your role and your relationship to the other party.

There will always be disagreements and challenging situations. Don’t shy away from them. When conflicts are left unresolved, they snowball into bigger issues. Rather, learn to look at these situations as opportunities for growth where you get to know each other better.