Clear Communication Reduces Conflict: Listening?

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By Carol J. Sutton

Clear communication is the key to conflict resolution. Not many people would disagree with that in principle, and yet when we open our mouths the words that emerge are often the antithesis of clarity. Why don’t we just say what we mean and ask for what we want?

Most often it’s because we don’t know how. We feel confused, scared, or angry, and simply want those difficult feelings to go away. So, we shoot from the lip with a snappy one-liner designed to deflect the criticism we feel is coming our way. Perhaps we attack first, thinking that’s the best defence. Or we agree outwardly, while seething within.

Five Times Why
In all of these instances, it is our own feelings that we are reacting to, and that is what shows, and like it or not, we communicate. Whatever we do and say – or refrain from doing and saying – tells other people something about what we are thinking and feeling. If we can keep this in mind, we can help ourselves, as well as others, see beyond our immediate, semi-automatic reactions.

If we can learn to hear and respond to the feelings behind the words – both our own and others’ – we can begin to articulate the deeper experience. Take Stephen Covey’s advice in this case; he recommended “five times why”. As per Covey, our first level response is never the real one; we need to dig down at least five levels to reveal the actual cause*.

Be a Good Storyteller
Also, words mean different things to different people. The same word can, and usually does, conjure up a different image for me than for you. Don’t assume my understanding is the same as yours just because you have told me something. So, when you explain a thing, do it several times, in different ways. Be a good storyteller, in the best sense of the term. Paint a picture with words, bring concepts to life, and use your personal experiences and insights to illuminate your information.  Speak plainly; language that sounds as if it is intended primarily to impress others usually goes wrong – in vocabulary, syntax or grammar.

To use communication well as the first level of conflict resolution, memorize this phrase: Communication and information are not the same thing.

By definition, communication is two-way. Once the other person has absorbed the raw data or information we have to impart, and then considered and responded to it, communication has begun. It continues through ongoing feedback and response between sender and receiver. This is the process through which we can either clarify our intentions and achieve cooperation, or muddy the waters and provoke some level of conflict.

Practice the Art of Listening
Good communication skills are intrinsic to any relationship where trust is key, such as the one between an HR advisor and internal client. Good communication starts with good listening. Not an inborn talent, good listening is an acquired skill and – like any skill – the key to mastery is practise.

As the conversation genuinely warrants your full effort – due to its potential to either generate or resolve conflict – listen with all of the tools and techniques you can master. Listening not only increases the chances of understanding, it helps enhance the relationship among participants. Respectful listening is the best basis we have for genuine communication.

Listen with more than your ears. Look at the person who is speaking to you and pick up the speaker’s non-verbal signals. By looking at him or her, you also will complete the eye contact that speakers usually are trying to make. A speaker will work harder at transmitting information well when he or she sees that the audience is receptive.

Beyond using your eyes and face to enhance contact with the speaker, add in some non-verbal signals. Move your face, letting it show a full range of emotions that indicate you are following the story. Not only will the speaker react positively to this body language, it will help you to concentrate on what the other person is saying.

Effectual listening is active, not passive; you should feel tired when the speaker has finished. If you find yourself drifting away while listening, change your body position and concentrate by using one of these skills. If you can get one of them in gear, the others soon will kick in as well.

Here’s a final tip: Your body position defines whether you will have the chance of being a good listener or merely a deflector. Good listeners are like poor boxers: they lead with their faces.

A speaker cannot force information into you. To complete the circuit and turn an information exchange into a completed cycle of communication, the listener also must be actively engaged in the process.

* from quality management processes of Dr. Kaoru Ishiwaka regarding cause-and-effect

Carol J. Sutton is presenting Conflict Resolution Skills for HR in Surrey on February 20. For more information on this and other professional development opportunities, please refer to BC HRMA’s online calendar.

Carol J. Sutton, Cert.ConRes, holds certificates in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution from the Justice Institute of B.C. Formerly strategic communications counsel for a wide variety of national and international companies, Carol achieved CPRS Accreditation and admission to the CPRS College of Fellows. Today, her practice focuses on coaching, training, and facilitation to resolve conflict and increase effective interpersonal communication in the workplace.

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  1. Hazel Morley January 18, 2013 at 4:36 pm · · Reply

    Enjoyed reading your article Carol. Thanks.

  2. Good, thoughtful article.
    Perhaps the most important thing is to care about what the other person has to say, to genuinely want to hear their concerns, and to let them speak their mind and tell their story.
    Then you let your genuine interest direct your curiosity and reactions.
    If you have a different mindset; you want to get it over with, you want to solve the problem and get back to what you were doing, you don’t want to hear complaints or problems, etc., then your actions and your poor listening will ultimately betray you.

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