Communicating During Conflicts

SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - Not everybody gets along. But how you approach conflicts can make all the difference. Not all means of communication are created equal, cautions Bill Lampton, president of consulting firm Championship Communication, in Gainsville, Georgia, and author of The Complete Communicator:

Change Your Communication, Change Your Life (Hillsboro Press, 1999). Some methods quell discord; others can aggravate it.

1. E-mail

According to Lampton, e-mail should never be used as a tool for addressing conflict. "The written word is cold and also can be so open to misunderstanding," Lampton says. Moreover, e-mail is often used to perpetuate conflict rather than to resolve it. "Someone sends a heated [message] and the other person says, 'I'll show them,' and they fire back," Lampton says.

Finally, e-mail is not confidential, leaving an electronic trail of exchanges your company is entitled to read.

2. Writing

On its own, Lampton says, no form of written communication -- be it interoffice memo, fax, or letter -- can defuse a tense situation in the workplace. "Written communication may help in defining the problem and eventually describing new agreements but it is unreliable in the heat of strife," Lampton says. Written documents can be very useful to structure debate or, after the fact, to list agreed-upon compromises.

3. Telephone

For immediacy, using the telephone is better than sending an e-mail message, and it has the benefit of conveying voice tone and inflection. The disadvantage is that you don't see the other person's nonverbal signals -- gestures, expressions, and body language -- so you may miss key emotional responses.

Lampton suggests using the phone for conflicts that involve information.

4. Face-to-face conversation

The most intimate form of communication is face-to-face conversation, which is perhaps why so many people shy away from it when confronting uncomfortable situations. A sit-down talk is the best option when dealing with personality conflicts or a job evaluation, and it is the best forum for resolution, Lampton says. Trying to resolve conflict via any other medium delivers a subliminal message that says, "I don't want to confront you with this," according to Lampton. But seeing someone's reaction to what you have to say can have a curative effect, even if the situation can't be remedied immediately. Of course, careful listening is integral to the success of an in-person discussion.

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