Communicating in Conflict

All of us have certainly seen many examples of conflict in the last several months. Communicating in conflict is often a negative situation, but whether it is good or bad all depends on how conflict is handled. Conflict can be unsettling and unpredictable and cause people to react in a defensive manner. But if you learn another point of view in the process, and both people come out of the discussion with new and useful information, then certainly conflict can be viewed in a positive way. Here are some suggestions on how to handle conflict positively.

Focus on the problem and not on the person. If you resort to name-calling or other derogatory remarks about the other person, stop and have a cooling-off period. Try to keep emotion out of the discussion. When emotions are high, communication is low. In addition, when there is a deep respect for each other and a positive relationship before the conflict, the issue can usually be settled in a very civilized and mutually beneficial manner. That is one reason why you want to develop positive relations with people.

Ask questions instead of making assumptions. You may have misunderstood that person’s position.

Listen for something you can agree with. When that occurs, stress the area where you agree and then move to the area where you are in conflict. Once you reach an impasse again, then move back to where you agree and follow the procedure. Ideally, you will eventually resolve the conflict to both your and the other person’s satisfaction.

Don’t say, “You are wrong.” This will immediately put the other person on the defensive—even if you know they are wrong.

Don’t interrupt the other person. This will anger the person and cause unnecessary additional conflict because of the interruption.

Don’t raise your voice. Try to keep a calm manner to your speech and nonverbal actions. If anything, lower your voice or speak more softly.

Do not make the other person look bad. You might even want to tell the person in private the error of their ways so that the individual will save face in front of peers.

Immediately apologize if you discover that you are wrong or the discussion highlights an error you made. Ask for facts and listen to the answers you receive. Accept responsibility and promise specific steps to help correct the situation.

In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” This can even be true with conflict if you respond to conflict in the ways suggested here.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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