Improving our communication
In this section, we’ll explore what we can do to minimise conflict with others and deal with it effectively before it escalates. We will be looking at tools and skills to improve communication that will help to de-escalate a conflict.
Conflict in the early stages can be de-escalated by rebuilding connection and relationship. Active listening, developing empathy and seeing things from the other person’s perspective are key skills for rebuilding connection. Clear communication and holding back our assumptions and judgements will also help us rebuild the relationship. The focus is on changing our own attitudes and behaviour so that we can improve our communication and address the conflict.
Empathy and connection
When we empathise with someone, in effect we stand in their shoes, we understand their feelings, their perspective and their values. Empathy begins with an internal choice to see things from a different point of view, to understand another side of a story. Empathy is being fully present to what another person is experiencing and not focussing on the emotions that are triggered in you, or how you can fix the problem.
Empathy is not agreement, but rather a willingness to fully understand how things look from someone else’s point of view. We don’t need to understand the details. We don’t need to have been in the same situation as the person we’re listening to – so for example, even if we have never had a child we can still empathise with a parent. Empathy is not a selfless act, we benefit as well. When we deeply understand another person’s perspective on something we feel more connected to them, and the other person becomes far more open to hearing and understanding us.
Two ways of maintaining connection between members of a group
Check-in: At the start of a meeting, have a go-round for everyone to say how they are, and briefly what’s going on in their lives. This can help group members connect with each other.
Feelings meeting: This is a meeting in its own right. It can happen regularly, or when tensions are running high in a group. You could do this in three rounds. Start with a check-in, “how are you, what’s going on in your life?” In the second round ask “what are you
finding difficult in this group currently”, and in the third ask “what do you appreciate about this group currently?”
“Whenever you are in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging the relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” ~ William James
Broadening our Perspectives – seeing things from another point of view
We have all had different experiences in life, which impact on our values and opinions. Others may have viewpoints that may be very different to our own, and yet are equally valid.
Imagine the colour blue – what is the first image or thought that comes into your mind? Perhaps the image or thought that came to you was of the sea or the sky, or perhaps you thought about a favourite piece of clothing or another object. Words like ‘blue’ form different impressions or images in our minds depending on our past experience. What I perceive may be very different from what others are
perceiving. Extending this concept to our interactions with others, it’s helpful to develop an awareness that others may be seeing things differently, even if we are using the same language or are in the same situation. Similarly our thoughts about what we have heard another person say may be very different to what the intended meaning was. Being willing to see things from another point of view can help us de-escalate conflict.
This section is adapted from work by the Conflict Resolution Network†.
We often think our opinions are right and others’ opinions are wrong. It can be more helpful to focus our attention firstly on finding areas of overlap, our common ground with others, or opinions that are complementary. From this place we can more easily consider our differences and then develop solutions that show respect for those differences.
The story of the blind-folded people and an elephant illustrates this point: each person took hold of a different part of the elephant. The one holding the trunk concluded the animal was a snake.
The one holding the leg thought it was tree; the one touching the elephant’s tusk claimed it was a missile launcher; and the one behind the elephant was convinced it was an anaerobic digester.
Each of them assumed their experience was the true representation of an “elephant”. They could not understand why the others were describing something which sounded so very different. Each person’s viewpoint is a part of the whole, if we listen to and respect each viewpoint, we’ll have greater insight into the big picture.
Keeping an open mind and holding back on judgements and assumptions
You see someone sitting quietly in a chair, head in hands, looking down at their feet. What are your assumptions or judgements? Maybe you think they’re sad, or that they are ill, maybe you think they are just a bit tired and sleepy or that they are meditating. We jump really quickly from the facts – someone sitting in a chair head in hands – to making assumptions and judgements about what is happening. This is a useful skill. If we see a car coming towards us, we want to interpret and understand that information very quickly so we can make a decision what to do next. Making interpretations of our surroundings is necessary for our safety and survival.
We don’t go into every new situation as if it were a blank slate; we use knowledge from past interactions to help us understand what’s happening and what we should do about it. The problem is that we are not always right with our interpretations. Going back to the person sitting head in hands, if we think they are meditating we will leave them alone, if we think they are ill we might go over and offer support. Two very different responses based on our interpretation of what is going on.
Trying to hold back our judgements can be really helpful to prevent conflicts escalating.
Whilst it’s not possible for us to be completely non-judgemental, trying to keep an open mind about why someone has done something and trying to hold back our judgements can be really helpful to prevent conflicts escalating. Especially in the early stages of a conflict, we have the possibility to nip things in the bud and clear up misunderstandings before they grow bigger and become entrenched.
Finding out what others are trying to say
Much of our day to day conversation does not involve deep listening. We might hear the content of what people say, but are so busy thinking about our own experiences or how we are going to reply that we don’t listen attentively to others, so we don’t pick up on
what’s really important to them. Hearing becomes listening only when we pay attention to what is said and also to how it is said.
There are some common behaviour patterns that reduce our ability to listen. We allow ourselves to get so emotionally wrapped up in what is being said that our emotions overtake our ability to listen clearly. We don’t like our opinions and views being challenged, so we stop listening and start planning our counter attack.
Or we jump in with our own story, interrogate the other person, offer unwanted advice or change the topic. These actions close down connection with others and leave the speaker thinking we are not really listening – and they’re right! Recognise yourself here? You’re not alone, it’s something we all do. But if we’re serious about wanting to communicate more effectively, to really get to understand those we are working or living with, and resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise, then practising and developing our active listening skills will really help.
Active listening is about suspending our own thought processes and making a conscious effort to understand another person’s perspective. Active listening allows us to focus on the core issues and meaning of a person’s message and to understand them better as a result. It goes beyond the content of what the person is saying. By actively listening we can come to understand how the speaker feels about the issue, as we tune into their underlying emotions, concerns and tensions.
Using body language, eye contact, and where appropriate, short questions or comments – we can show the speaker we are listening, help them formulate their thoughts and reassure them that we respect and value them and what they have to say.
We can also show people that we’ve heard them properly by summarising the core of what they have said and offering it back to them. This is also a good way to check whether we’ve understood them – if we get it wrong it gives them the opportunity to correct us. When we’re listening well, it’s with the heart as well as the head. Active listening helps open the door to connection and deeper understanding of the other person.
|Jim: “It would be much better if some people stopped taking on so much of the work. Our group would be so much better if other people had a chance.”||Maeve: “Are you talking about me? How dare you! I put so much of my life into this group, and this is all the thanks I get!?”||Maeve: “It seems pretty important to you that more people take on the work in our group – is