Communications in conflict situations

Table of contents

  1. Effective communication starts with listening
    1. Three levels of listening
    2. How to listen effectively
  2. What prevents one from communicating effectively during a conflict situation?
    1. Cognitive biases
    2. Exaggeration
    3. Feeling superior
    4. Being negative
    5. Going off topic

Effective communication starts with listening

When we want to understand what caused an issue, it is important to know how to listen attentively with a genuine intention to get what the other party thinks and feels, regardless of our personal view. On the other hand, our innate unconscious desire in most conversations is to answer. When we listen we automatically weigh whether we agree or not with the speaker and start preparing our answer. If we blindly trust our automatic reactions in a conflict situation, the conflict might not end well. The success of communication and keeping it constructive depends on whether or not we are able to listen to others proactively. Active listening demonstrates respect and is enough for many people to calm down.

Three levels of listening

Henry Kimsey-House suggested the concept of three levels of listening:

  1. Internal listening. A situation when in a conversation a user thinks only about their own needs and does not focus on what the other users say. Instead of listening, the user is just waiting for their turn to insert their opinion.
  2. Focused listening. A situation when in a conversation a user closely listens to the others.
  3. Global listening. A situation when a user is so engaged in a conversation that their intuition turns on, they begin to understand what the speaker not only thinks but feels, what are the fears and aspirations of the other users and how does this all correlate with the common goal.

We all need to strive for global listening in the conversations we participate in.

How to listen effectively

  • Be present here and now. Eliminate any sources of irritation and distraction and direct your complete attention to the user.
  • Be ready to listen to what the other user is saying without filtering their words through the lens of your personal perspectives. Keep your unconscious internal assessment mechanism off.
  • Be the one who listens first. Until the other user feels heard their response will consist of defensiveness and disagreement. When the other user sees that they are heard, they are ready to listen to you. It is not necessary to agree with everything they say. You just need to acknowledge that their view is real and valid and show that you sincerely want to understand what they think.
  • Control your emotions. Especially the urge to be right and to win. Never start sharing your own thoughts until another user fully finishes.
  • Ask open ended questions to overcome resistance in the form of “yes” or “no” answers. Use questions like “what do you think about the issue?” or “what did you mean when you said that?”
  • Encourage other users to keep sharing. Emphasize that you want to know everything they know about the issue.
  • If something sounds vague, indicate to the speaker what you just have heard by saying something like “It sounds like you are saying” or “what I am hearing is”.
  • Reframe when needed. Someone’s perception of a problem depends on how we describe it. Changing our narrative about the problem can significantly influence others’ perception and their emotions.
  • Take a pause any time you feel uneasy. If you do not have an idea what to say or if someone said something inappropriate, pause saying nothing.
  • Stay focused and on topic.

What prevents one from communicating effectively during a conflict situation?

Cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are our subconscious reactions. Often our position is due to our prejudices and patterns of behavior that we have learned during our lifetimes.

Cognitive biases are systematic behavior patterns that are based on unconscious reactions, mental shortcuts and emotional factors. Here are the most common biases.

  • Hindsight. The confidence that nowadays events could be predicted in advance.
  • Fundamental attribution error. The habits of labeling people based on superficial facts.
  • Confirmation bias. When one intentionally searches to prove their ideas and refuses anything that disproves them.


In a conflict situation we should not exaggerate or generalize. We need to avoid using words like “always” and “never” and focus on discussing only specific behaviors that we have observed.

Feeling superior

One should never show any signs of superiority directly or indirectly when communicating, especially in a conflict situation. Even if you are one hundred percent sure about the right answer, present your ideas as suggestions.

Being negative

When one feels angry, their typical reaction is to start blaming the other side. All they will get in response to the blame is others’ defensive reaction. Before starting a conversation be sure that you feel good and do not experience strong negative emotions to the other party that can affect the way you communicate.

Going off topic

Sometimes when you contact a user about their destructive behavior, they begin to rationalize the behavior by providing “whys”, referring to others, etc. This allows them to divert the conversation from discussing their behavior that you observed to discussing some general and sometimes controversial ideas. You need to prevent this from happening the moment you see it. When you see a user who rationalize their behavior in those ways, do the following.

  1. Explicitly show that you hear what the user is saying.
  2. In polite neutral language return to the conversation to the user and their behavior.