Communicating Through Conflict

Business in the United States and in the world is largely based around small groups of people and teams working together towards common goals. Despite having shared goals, conflict often arises on these teams due to misunderstandings, missteps, and mistakes. Thankfully, there are multiple styles of interpersonal communication that can help take on conflict and bring about positive resolutions. 

Before anything else is discussed, it is important to break the word conflict into the modern connotation and then inspect what the communication theory definition of conflict. In modern everyday parlance, conflict means to battle or as Merriam Webster puts it, “competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons). And that is not surprising since the word conflict is descended from the Latin con, which means joined/together, and fligre, which morphed over time to flict and means to fight or strike – joined fight.  

However, modern communication theory takes the word conflict and gives it new life. In the 1970s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, academics working in psychology, realized that conflict as it was traditionally defined was potentially overstating how the word is used in everyday parlance. Conflict does not have to be a giant disagreement or a drawn-out fight. Rather, conflict is any disagreement or pair of actions that oppose one another. That means that conflict could be as simple as two people trying to use the same door at the same time or as big as how to manage the yearly $6.27 trillion U.S. budget. In either case the same communication strategies to deal with any conflict, be it big or small, can be plotted on an x-axis of assertiveness and a y-axis of cooperation.  

Personally, I have evolved the way I deal with conflict as I have grown and become more mature. As a child I was assertive and did not rely much on being cooperative. Under the Thomas-Kilmann model of conflict resolution, this is what they call a competing strategy. While a competing strategy may work well while arguing with your brother about if Batman or Superman is better, it is usually not the best way to deal with conflict as an adult.  

As a young man I began to get better at using the cooperative side of conflict communication. I may have become too cooperative though, which made me an accommodating communicator. I would give up too easily in managing conflict communications, and that led to extra problems in getting work finished. Now, as an experienced professional I try, and mostly succeed, to balance the two and strive to reach collaborative solutions to conflict, which utilizes being active in communication and working towards cooperation. However, a collaborative style may not always be possible due to the nature of conflict or the timeline in which the conflict must be remedied.  

In addition to trying to model a collaborative conflict style, as a pilot I also often use Crew Resource Management as a communications tool — especially in stressful situations, both in and out of the cockpit. Crew Resource Managment, or CRM, was developed after a series of major airline accidents. The keys to CRM are utilizing teamwork of all involved to make timely and safe decisions during what are often stressful situations. Using CRM has not only made me a better pilot but has also helped in working through conflict in business and public policy.  

Communicating well, especially in complicated situations, is an integral part of professional life. I believe that my many years of experience in crisis communications and public policy, combined with CRM has made me much better at working through and communicating around conflict.