Words Matter: Communication Amidst Conflict

stop, violence, fist-4121138.jpg


Parents understand how easily communication can create conflict by a mere mincing of words. It starts with a small problem, cleaning up for example. One sibling asks for help. The other doesn’t respond (or at least not fast enough.) The first whines that the second, “never cleans up the mess.” The second says the mess belongs to the first. And so on. We all deal with conflict whether it’s dishes in the sink, overdue bills, showing up late for work, or not returning a call. The conflict could be small, like an accusation, or large, like a feud at work. The bottom line is communication isn’t the only key, but how one communicates is key.

The Wrong Words

‘You’ statements are easily called upon in emotional heat. “You never clean up.” “You’re always late.” “You don’t care about me.” ‘You’ statements are like an attack, and when someone attacks, we try to defend. “I clean up more than you.” “You’re nagging; I’m only a few minutes late!” “You don’t care about me!” Choosing ‘you’ statements is choosing the wrong words. If we could say how we feel and get the message across without ‘attacking,’ our communication would work because the other party would listen to our concerns.

The Right Words

Coaches teach coaching partners to use an ‘I’ statement with three parts. First, how do you feel? “I feel…” What’s the feeling this situation stirs up? Second, what’s the action that causes this feeling? Is the person not helping, late for their shift, talking loudly at you…? Third, why does this action cause you to feel this way? Maybe clean-up will take longer by yourself. Maybe you can’t be late leaving work because you have another appointment. Communicating this changes the ‘attack’ to a team effort or a request for help. “I feel rushed when you’re late for work because I need to pick my child up on time.”

Communication Success

When you present your dilemma with a concern and not an attack, the other person will feel less inclined to defend and more inclined to help. Seeking help is more peaceful than feeding conflict. Finding the right words to induce listening over defensiveness leads to communication success! Think: how would you want to be spoken to if you were in that person’s shoes. The immediate reaction might be, “I wouldn’t do that in the first place.” Think about that side though. What might lead him or her to be that way? Start by presenting your dilemma clearly and non-confrontationally and you might be surprised how far you get. Maybe that person will make greater efforts to avoid the issue altogether.

This is just one lesson among many that coaches build on as they work with coaching partners. For communication success, which is pivotal in many success stories, work on fewer ‘you’ statements and more ‘I’ statements. After all, we can only speak for ourselves, so let’s communicate that instead of blaming or triggering defensiveness. We may not mean to, but words matter, so let’s practice more positive communication. [Special thanks for Paul Hackett for inspiring this post.]