Conflict management through effective communication

I was attending a workshop organized by the graduate school at the MSU campus in early February 2011. The workshop was titled “Conflict prevention and communication skills for successful project management”. The presenters were Dr. Tony Nunez and Parker Huston and I gained valuable insight about this topic that I am sharing here.

Being in academic settings and working on joint research projects can sometimes be challenging. Seemingly trivial matters if not given due attention can potentially be a source of unease for all members involved. In addition to organizing and dealing with team members in one’s research life, simple day to day dealings with people need certain attention. Given proper attention, it may not be hard to comprehend the importance of first avoiding conflict and if needed managing it. The costs of conflict may not only be limited to relationships but may also include productivity losses and time waste.

Communication skills rightly form the basis of any healthy relationship. In academia, student-teacher relationships right up to the doctoral level are of importance just as other relationships are. Setting clear boundaries and unambiguous expectations go a long way in ensuring a good working relationship. When expectations (whether stated or unstated) are not met, conflicts may arise. Therefore it is important to communicate those expectations in advance so that conflict can be avoided. If one is not clear, it is best to ask and be aware of the expectations. Just as one should be aware of other’s person’s/organization’s expectations, it is also necessary to ensure that your expectations are also made known in a nice way.

Basic styles of communication can be understood as being passive, assertive and aggressive. These categories can be viewed on a scale where passive and aggressive are at the opposite ends. Assertive communication style can be seen in the middle. However, one can easily tip towards either of those extremes. Assertiveness may easily be confused with aggressiveness. In fact, assertiveness is neither passive nor aggressive communication style. When you are assertive ask yourself, am I being honest, appropriate, respectful, and direct? If the answer is yes, you are being assertive rather than aggressive.  Assertiveness is the compatible way to work. It is best to be assertive and speak about what one feels is important in a polite way. In groups settings by setting certain goals and communicating assertively, conflicts may be avoided.

Personality determines a lot about a person’s behavior, as much as culture, goals, experiences, etc. All these factors combine to create different communication styles. There is a way to deliver an important message without being aggressive and without leaving it on chance for the other person to determine what one is thinking. Although it is hard to change certain negative behaviors but timely communication of possible issues can help the other person to realize before things go out of hands.

The problem lies in being dishonest to oneself. We may often not speak our mind and always try to be accommodative thus falsely imagining that we can avoid conflict. The reality is that there may be certain instances when minor conflicts can be self-correcting but in most cases conflicts can become more serious if allowed to grow. The eventual breakdown would not help anyone.  Therefore, instead of being accommodating and avoiding confrontation, it is best to be honest in expressing one’s concerns in an assertiveness manner.

In dealing with conflict, the first step after being honest about one’s concerns is identifying the issue. To solve a problem, both sides must first agree on what the issue is. For example, the issue may simply be lack of communication. Once that is done, steps can be taken to solve the issue. In this case, both sides can agree on having frequent communication. Often if things are left to be assumed, mistrust may emerge leading to conflict. It is thus necessary to clearly state what the expectations are from both sides. Lastly, word choice, body language; timing and constructive evaluation can go a long way in ensuring healthy working relationships.

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