Communication challenges and misunderstandings lie at the heart of all conflicts. When we are in a dispute or controversy, whether with fellow team members or partners, much of our communication is reactionary and one sided. We talk over each other. In fact, the language we use to describe these heat of the moment responses, “pushed my hot buttons” or “went ballistic” shows that angry heated communication is not a conscious process. Heated communication doesn’t solve any problems. In fact, it often inflames the issues.
Today’s article discusses various communication formats and their purpose.
Some communication theorists interpret human communication as a continuous loop, with the sender and receiver simultaneously engaged in the receiving, interpreting and responding to each other’s messages. However, when people are in conflict their communication is fraught with misinterpretation. Their exchange of words and meaning is analogous to airplanes flying at different altitudes. Parallel one-way communication never transforms conflict because there is no basis for mutual understanding. Each participant operates from their own worldview. Without a thoughtful, conscious exchange and recognition of interests the conflict will just be exacerbated.
However we have choices in communication formats. Conscious conversation means being aware of the different communication structures we have for speaking and listening and choosing an appropriate format. In this article we will compare and contrast eight forms of discourse discussed by Mark Gerzon in Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006. As always we will conclude with our practical tips, this time for becoming a conscious communicator.
Argument: Unstructured exchange of words whose purpose is to vent or wound.
Debate: Structured argument with ground rules. Each side’s goal is to exchange their position and attack the other side.
Presentation: Purpose is to offer information with little opportunity for meaningful exchange.
Discussion: Another information sharing format. There are often no ground rules in discussion and no structure for decision-making.
Negotiation: A process for working through agreement between stakeholders. Effective at achieving compromise if issues are clear and all necessary parties are present. More complex, systemic conflicts often require other forms of discourse, in addition to negotiation. Id at 151.
Council: A structured process with ground rules where stakeholders sit in a circle and each has an opportunity to speak openly and honestly. Originally conceived by Native American tribes this form is useful for adversaries who have never met face-to-face as well as when confrontational communication patterns characterize the participants interactions. Id at 152. Adaptations of this structure are used in for community criminal justice issues in a system called Community Conferencing.
Dialogue: This is a process that is designed to identify common ground, explore and challenge assumptions. “It begins with the premise not that we are right and they are wrong but that the “truth” is larger than either side. Its purpose is not to rush to judgment but to allow the antagonists to deepen their understanding of the issue, each other and possible new options. Id at152.
Reflective silence: Invocation of moments of silence at the start of a meeting, event or other gathering. Sometimes serves to cool passions and bring people into deeper communication.
Argument, debate and presentation are not problem solving forms of discourse. If problem solving is necessary then negotiation, council and dialogue may be worth exploring. Leaders and managers with the mediation headset which we’ve been writing about over the past few months would be well served to follow the conscious conversation tips below in choosing and structuring the correct format for each situation.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.