Sunday, October 31, 2004

Effective Communication in Dispute Resolution: A Balance of Emotion and Desire for Common Understanding

A paper written for “Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Alternate Dispute Resolution” (Leadership 9610).

Please note: The three figures cited in this paper are not included in this posting.

Communication is a key element in disputes and effective dispute resolution. The transmission of message – or the non or incomplete transmission of message – is involved in every stage of dispute. All human interaction – including disputes – is based on communication. Communication is fundamental in interpersonal relationships, corporate relationships, and community relationships. To successfully communicate, barriers which block effective message transmission must be torn down. Effective communication is also predicated on all parties seeking common understanding and limiting action based on emotion as much as possible. Communication plays a role in both the escalation of conflict and the resolution of conflict. Effective practitioners of conflict resolution understand communication and seek to increase the desire for common understanding and reduce the emotional action of the communication cycle.

Definition of Communication

As Schwarz (1994) puts it, “Essentially communication involves exchanging information in a way that conveys meaning.” (p. 25) Communication requires four components: the sender, the receiver, the medium, and the message. Undergirding this quartet is the need to encode and decode the message. The sender is the person who is sending the message. They create the message, encode the message – perhaps into words – and then convey the message. The receiver is on the receiving end. They must receive the message and decode the message to ascertain the meaning of the message. The medium is what is used to transmit the message. For instance, I am using words, written English, to transmit a message to you, the reader. The medium is the written word. Tonight, when my soon-to-be wife returns from babysitting the neighbor’s child we will use the spoken word as the medium. We’ll also trade messages through non-verbals or body language: a look, a touch, a posture. Spoken words are a medium as are various non-verbals. Other mediums could be art, such as paintings or statues. The message is the fourth component of the quartet. The message is the information which the sender is attempting to transmit.

Covey (1989) suggests there are four forms of communication: writing, reading, speaking, and listening. (p. 237) For him, the action by the sender or the receiver is the form of communication; it takes both appropriate forms to have successful communication.

Figure 1. The Communication Quartet

In order for the sender to successfully communicate with the receiver, the message must be appropriately encoded, sent using the chosen medium, and decoded by the receiver. If, at any point, there’s a breakdown, the communication will not occur. Perhaps a different message will be seemingly received by the receiver (mis-communication) or no message will be received (non-communication). As Carkhuff (1983) notes, decoding the message uses observation that goes beyond the words the sender uses. “We must focus not only upon the words but also upon the tone of voice and the manner of presentation.” (p. 47)

Communication occurs at various levels of human interaction. My focus here is on interpersonal communication – communication (generally face-to-face) between two people or a small group of people. There are, of course, other types of communication including mass communication – communication using messages distributed to many people at one time, such as television and newspapers, in generally a one-way communication mode – and intrapersonal communication, our own self-talk and reflective communication. Bolton (1979) tells us, “Although interpersonal communication is humanity’s greatest accomplishment, the average person does not communicate well.” (p. 4) He goes on to say, “One of the ironies of modern civilization is that, though mechanical means of communication have been developed beyond the wildest flight of imagination, people often find it difficult to communicate face-to-face… we find it difficult to relate to those we love.” (p. 4) For a multitude of reasons, true communication – sending out a real and true message which speaks to our inner self – is most difficult with those who we care about. And, often, even if we send out such a message, it is not received. Barriers to communication seem to abound.

Barriers to communication

Gordon (as cited in Bolton, 1979) developed a “comprehensive list that he calls the ‘dirty dozen’ of communication spoilers.” (p. 15) These barriers to communication can be divided into three major categories: judging, sending solutions, and avoiding the other’s concerns. Rogers (as cited in Bolton, 1979) claimed the major barrier to interpersonal communication is judging – approving or disapproving what the other person says. (p. 17) Carkhuff (1983) places “suspending judgment” as a key in listening. Rees (2001) defines an important characteristic of a facilitative leader as someone who “reserves judgment and keeps and open mind.” (p. 60) Covey (1977), who purports a key habit of effective people is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood), notes “When you understand, you don’t judge. Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler (2002) suggest that effective communication has mutual purpose. They define mutual purpose as “working toward a common outcome in the conversation” and that all participants care about the other’s “goals, interests, and values.” (p. 69) Mutual purpose, as they define it, cannot occur with judgment impeding the communication.

Another prominent barrier to communication doesn’t fit neatly into Gordon’s pantheon. This barrier has to do with a person’s attitude while listening. Bolton (1979) says, “If you are at all typical, listening takes up more of your waking hours than any other activity.” (p. 30) Nichols and Stevens (as cited in Bolton, 1979, p. 30) claim listening occupies 45 percent of our waking time. And yet, as Bolton notes, “few people are good listeners.” (p. 30) Covey (1989) says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.” (p. 239) Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler (2002) suggest “At the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information.” (p. 20) They call this “filling the pool of shared meaning.” I call it a desire for common understanding. And common understanding cannot happen when the listeners are filtering the message through their own world-view

Conversation – two people talking and listening back and forth – is not necessarily built on a desire for common understanding. Tannen (1995) says, “Conversation is fundamentally ritual in the sense that we speak in ways our culture has conventionalized and expect certain types of responses.” (p. 321) Covey (1989) says, “We’re usually ‘listening’ at one of four levels.” (p. 240) He identifies those four levels as ignoring the other person, pretending to listen to the other person, only selectively listening to the other person, and attending to the other person by focusing on the words and feelings. He claims few of us practice the fifth level – empathic listening, which he defines as “listening with the intent to understand” – not to respond or run the message against our own life script. “Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside the other person’s frame of reference.” (p. 240) In wearing the other’s shoes – or glasses, perhaps – a listener can begin to come to a common understanding.

Another barrier to communication is strong emotion. Often emotion enters into a communication cycle and neither the sender nor the listener is able to focus on message. Paterson et al. (2002) identify six behaviors stemming from emotion. These six behaviors form a continuum from “silence” to “violence.” Withdrawing, avoiding, and masking form silence, while attacking, labeling, and controlling form violence. Olsen and Braithwaite (2004) note clear research shoes violent communication behaviors – such as verbal aggression, anger, patronizing behavior, and destructive forms of relational control – often lead to violent relationships. (p. 271)

Figure 2. Silence/Violence Continuum

Violence can be tamed, however. Utne (2004) suggests, “If you blunder into a delicate communication, request a re-do lest you dig yourself in any deeper… let your hackles down and listen as if for the first time.” (p. 56, emphasis added. True listening can help conquer violence.

These barriers – judging, sending solutions, avoiding other’s concerns, not pursuing common understanding, and strong emotion – all play a part in communication styles.

Communication Styles

A number of researchers and communications experts have identified a number of communication styles. Covey (1989) provides the five levels of listening, a set of communication styles. Tannen (1995)outlines communication styles of men and women. Lulofs and Cahn (2000) list a number of communication options. Davis (2002) outlines communication styles and behaviors that help build bridges between diverse peoples. Kroeger (2002) purports that communication style is linked with personality type and outlines styles and their implications in the work setting.

Another way of looking at communication styles is to first look to the barriers to communication. Judging has to do with putting our own spin on someone else’s message or words. It is an autobiographical response that runs counter to the goal of attaining common understanding. Sending solutions falls into the same trap; when we send solutions, we are providing solutions developed from our own perspective. Again, it runs counter to a establishing a common understanding. When we avoid the other’s concerns, we are also running counter to common understanding, but we usually do it in a way of intolerable emotion, such as provided on the silence/violence continuum.

We can look to communication style as falling along two continuums. The first continuum has to do with the level of emotion in the communication, as exhibited by either the sender or the receiver. On one end of the spectrum is no emotion; on the other end is emotion generally present in the form of violence or silence. The second continuum is the desire for common understanding within the sender or the receiver. This continuum measures “intent” or the inner desire of the person. We can match these two continuums in a 2x2 matrix, and then plot a person’s style on the axis.

Figure 3: Communication Matrix

The ideal communication style lies in the lower right quadrant: low emotion and a high desire for common understanding. The least helpful communication style lies in the upper left quadrant with a low desire for common understanding and high emotion. Interestingly, in this model, both ends of the silence/violence continuum lie together in the same quadrant. Both the extremes of silence and violence are highly emotional behaviors.

The communication matrix can be a useful tool in reviewing communication styles. The emotional continuum determines external behavior, what we see. The other continuum measures something inside the person: it measures intent, desire, and hope. Using the matrix, we can look at behavior and intent; and, by using the matrix we can, perhaps, change behavior and intent – or at least educate communication partners.

Role of communication in conflict escalation

Communication plays a fundamental role in conflict escalation. Wilmot & Hocker (2001) detail destructive conflict spirals, patterns of behaviors in relationships which spiral out-of-control. In each of these destructive spirals, communication between the parties sparks further development. In these spirals, the communication is negative in nature or highly emotional or stems from a misunderstanding. Davis (2002) provides examples of Israeli and Palestinian youth attending camp together in the United States. Through destructive cycles, which are fed by communication between these youth, occasional outbursts create untenable situations. It is communication, not action, which propels the motion of the cycle. Certainly, in their homeland it is action that provides a spiral of destruction; in the woods of Colorado, however, it is not so much action as it is talking about action which sometimes creates these cycles. Emotion, misunderstanding, negativity propel the participants to conflict.

When we apply the communication matrix, we can see that generally, for a destructive spiral to occur, one or both of the participants must be living to the left of the centerline. Whether emotion is high or low, the desire for common understanding is low. Lulofs & Cahn (2000), Wilmot & Hocker (2001), Davis (2002), and Ury (1999), all suggest that strong emotion, in and of itself, does not escalate conflict. Looking at the communication model, the upper right quadrant has high levels of emotion, but also high levels of desire for common understanding. It is possible to have both. In the upper right quadrant of the communication matrix, the participant has strong emotion, but because it is tempered with the desire for common understanding, the emotion is not acted on. In the upper left quadrant, the emotion is acted on in such a way as to withdraw, avoid, or mask, or in such a way to control, label, attack. The emotion is not tempered by a desire for common understanding; as a matter of fact, when we are behaving in the upper left quadrant, our emotion can be fanned out of control like a wild fire on a dry, southern California hillside with the winds kicking off the Pacific.

Role of communication in conflict resolution

Lulofs & Cahn (2000) describe a process model of communication that suggests five distinct phases. These phases are: (a) prelude to conflict, (b) a triggering event, (c) the initiation phase, (d) the differentiation phase, and (e) the resolution phase. (p. 87) The prelude to conflict is just that: the prelude. In this phase, conflict can potentially exist because of the participants and their relationships or some environmental factor. The triggering event is generally some sort of communication; I would suggest that actions serve here as communication. If I slap you, I am using my hand and the action of the slap as the medium in delivering a message; in order for you to receive the message, you would need to decode to translate. In this sense, the action is a mode of communication. The initiation phase starts when at least one of the participants realizes there’s a conflict as initiated by a triggering event: no triggering event, no conflict. Likewise, when the parties have no realization of a triggering event, there’s no conflict. It is possible for the conflict to proceed to no further stage if the participants move to avoidance. In the differentiation phase, the participants begin to share their differences, positions, and needs. The final stage is resolution. Lulofs & Cahn suggest “Resolution is a probable outcome when the conflict can be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned; management is more likely when only one or neither party can be satisfied.” (p. 96)

What is the role of communication in these phases? Clearly, we can see that communication can trigger the conflict. Likewise, communication in the differentiation stage can help de-escalate conflict and begin to bring the conflict to resolution. Davis (2002) tells a number of stories from the camp in the mountains outside Denver with the Israeli and Palestinian youth. In each story, it is positive communication – sometimes laced with emotion – coupled with a strong desire to really understand the other person that creates situations where the conflict is resolved. As Davis notes, “When two people come to the table with authenticity and kindness – and a deep willingness to listen to each other – neither comes out of the interaction unchanged.” (p. 201) She goes on to say, “But when adversaries enter into a dialogue with a basic respect for differing points of view and ground rules that make conversation possible, alliances can be built even across the most intransigent lines.” (p. 201) Covey (1989) suggests one of those ground rules that makes conversation possible. Covey would have us present the other person’s ideas and position as well as they can, or better. He suggests we do not need to agree with it; we merely need to understand it. This is at the root of his fifth habit, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Covey’s ground rule is truly only effective when the participants both desire a common understanding. Certainly, if one participant desires common understanding, and the other does not, it is possible that the first’s actions will bring about a change in the second person. In this case there is still some effectiveness.

Role of communication in interpersonal relationships

Communication is a fundamental building block in interpersonal relationships. As Davis (2002) notes, “Estrangements often start because we lack the communication skills to prevent them: we don’t know how to apologize, listen, or cool off and talk again tomorrow.” (p. 14) For her, communication skills are paramount in developing, and holding on to, deep relationships between people. Beyond the skills, however, is the attitude. The communication matrix places the horizontal axis with “desire.” It is the individual’s desire to find common understanding. Covey (1989) says, “But you can always seek first to understand. That’s something that’s within your control.” (p. 257) He goes on to suggest, “To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground. . . . The next time you communicate with anyone, you can put aside your own autobiography and genuinely seek to understand.” (p. 258)

Using the communication matrix, we see the goal is certainly to stay to the right of the matrix. When we do not intend to seek common understanding, we do not increase the pool of knowledge, nor do we seek first to understand. Living to the left of the matrix only increases the likelihood of destructive conflict cycles and a life in conflict. And, when we act in the upper left quadrant, our actions are highlighted by the extremes of silence and violence. We find ourselves withdrawing or attacking; both have no place in conflict resolution. By withdrawing, we only create stronger emotion within ourselves that festers and spirals out of control. By attacking, even if it is only a verbal attack, we increase the likelihood of physical violence. (Olsen & Braithwaite, 2004).

Communication as a tool for personal growth and conflict resolution

Understanding the role of communication in conflict escalation, conflict resolution, and interpersonal relationships can provide a person with an opportunity for personal growth: “I can do better.” Using the communications matrix as a tool for understanding, we see the relationship between emotion – in the communication content, message, or medium – and desire for common understanding. When a person has a desire for common understanding – as demonstrated by the stories told by Davis (2002), Covey (1989, 1997), and Bolton (1977) – tremendous things can happen in the relationship between the participants. Minimizing action based on emotion – the silence and violence behaviors – and increasing the desire for common understanding, can allow growth in each participant and in the relationship as a whole.


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Wilmot, W. W. & Joyce, J. L. (2001). Interpersonal Conflict (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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