Communicating through conflict: a mediator offers tips on managing difficult conversations

We could all do with a few tips on how to manage a difficult conversations, whether that’s at home or in the office. Alumna Marie Coombes (Business Studies, 1999) shares her tips on how to communicate through conflict.

Marie graduated from the University’s Business School in 1999 before working for Royal Mail for 17 years, specialising in change management, industrial relations, employee engagement and conflict resolution. An experienced mediator, her strong relationships with union officials, employees and management at all levels smoothed the way to a successful outcome in an overwhelming majority of her cases. In September this year, Marie set up her own business – MECCR Ltd – specialising in helping organisations improve employee wellbeing by the use of resolution-focused employee relations and effective conflict management. Marie also holds an MBA. She is a Member of the Civil Mediation Council (CMC) and a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute.

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Communicating Through Conflict

Conflict is inevitable; it’s always going to occur when people disagree and it’s impossible to think we as humans are going to agree on everything. However, conflict does not always have to be a negative experience. As Ghandi said “honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress”. Put simply, whether it’s constructive or destructive depends on how you react. Unfortunately, in the midst of conflict its often difficult to imagine it to be anything other than damaging, but these 5 tips could help you change that:

Be aware of your body language

Communication is more than what is actually being said; it’s often as much about what’s not being said. Instead of confrontational body language such as pointing, glaring or crossing your arms, nod your head indicating understanding, slow your breathing and relax your facial muscles, particularly your jaw. This will make you feel calmer, at the same time as helping to diffuse the emotions of the other person.

Give them chance to speak

How often have you been in an argument and you have either been interrupted or yourself interrupted someone? How frustrated and resentful do you feel? This kind of behaviour does nothing to calm emotions nor allows chance to resolve differences. Instead trying giving each other a couple of minutes to talk without responding to allow you to make your points. This allows you to feel heard rather than dismissed.

Listen to hear rather than reply

This goes hand in hand with the previous point. In a conflict situation, it’s natural to be thinking how you are going to respond to what is being said to you. This means you are listening in order to form a response rather than listening to understand. Instead put aside your own feelings for a moment and focus on what is being said. Knowing you are being heard creates empathy as well as opportunities to find a solution you are both happy with.

Remove your perceptions

Every interaction is coloured by past experience. If you are faced with someone talking loudly for example, your perception may be they are being aggressive, when in fact that may be normal behaviour for them. Focus instead on their behaviour; rather than accusing them of being aggressive possibly using what could be deemed aggressive behaviour yourself, instead share that you feel by them talking loudly they are being aggressive.

Don’t make it personal

It’s all too easy to blame someone for a situation, or to attack the person in the heat of the moment when in reality conflict is very rarely one sided. Apportioning blame is likely to only inflame the situation. Instead address the problem and work together to find a solution.  

Often all anyone wants in a conflict situation is to be heard and their perspective understood, even if that doesn’t result in you both agreeing. Use these tips and you may be surprised at how much easier it is to work through conflict situations constructively.

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