Projects in Conflict – A brief guide to taking action when communication breaks down

Projects in Conflict

Addressing communication breakdowns

Conflict is inevitable, and all of us have gotten to a place where we are stopped because someone’s anger, insecurity, inability to listen or hostility keeps us from moving forward. This is frightening – it can threaten the deliverables of a project and, in some cases, can endanger our employment. When I look at the literature out there that speaks to this, most focuses on communication strategies that we hope to use to change the outlook of the person with whom we are in conflict. In my attempts to deploy these tactics I have come to a startling conclusion:

I have absolutely no power to change another person.

In my experience, people change their point of view or position for their own reasons, not mine. This is particularly true when tensions are running high and people are entrenched in their positions. So, our other option is to change ourselves.

Now, I know you are going to have a reaction along the lines of, “But I am right….” and perhaps you are. However, when you are in conflict with someone who is stuck in their position, being hostile, and/or not listening being right isn’t going to help you. Taking a different approach is necessary and since we can’t change them, we have to look deeper and identify that issue which is threatening the person we are in conflict with. The fact is, even irrational people have well defined justifications for their positions and, in understanding them, we can identify ways to address those concerns and fears.

The problem is, empathy is difficult when we are up against someone who is being hostile. So let’s take a step back – I have found that most humans, to one degree or another, struggle with self-confidence. I would even say that most inappropriate or hostile behavior is a direct result of people covering for that insecurity. This is true for me – when I am being unreasonable or angry, it is usually because I perceive a slight or threat that touches something I am uncomfortable within myself. So with this this understanding, I can perform well (or marginally better) in conflict because it allows me to avoid reacting to bad behavior. I don’t need to condone it, but if I recognize its source as coming from insecurity I don’t need to react in kind and escalate the situation. After all, you wouldn’t get angry at someone who was expressing anger or frustration as a result of a disability, right? Well we would at least be more forgiving. So if we can interact with someone’s bad behavior as a result of their insecurity and show some empathy, it is easier not to personalize it. “Frank is making rude comments because he is caught in a 6th grade insecurity about not being good enough” is so much easier to deal with that “Frank is attacking me because he is a jerk.”

Now the next step is to listen – Remember we are not being empathetic to roll over and accept the point of view of the person with whom we’re in conflict. Rather, we want to listen to them without disputing everything that comes out of their mouths. We want to really hear their point of view, and most importantly, leave them with the experience of being heard.

In my experience when people are heard and feel listened to, they let go of hostility and are then freed up to listen. Confirm their point of view – not to placate them, but to really look at the situation from their point of view and confirm that with the information they have, and have considered, that there is validity in their point of view. After all, they have those feelings and they are valid. This is also a time to consider the validity of their point of view – does it make changes to your stance? If so, acknowledge that.

When they have the experience of being heard – ask if they can listen to another point of view. This is the time to express positions you have that had not been considered

Generally, when people are heard and their point of view is heard they are freed to listen to other viewpoints.

Good Luck.

Peter Laughter
CEO – Wall Street Services