Communication is difficult. Let's be clear about that once and for all. In this article, we take a brief look at how to communicate well and what you can do when disagreements arise in working life. Where conflicts at home are concerned, you’ll have to work that out for yourself.
One of the traditional models of communication taught at school consists of three parts: A sender, a message and a receiver. If the world were that simple, we would probably never have misunderstandings or disagreements. What the model does not shed light on, however, are the different interpretations that it accommodates.
If I am the sender, I have a built-in understanding of what a message means. That's my interpretation. Thus I almost always speak from the viewpoint of how I see the world. I share my message on the basis of my interpretation of it.
The recipient of my message has also grown up with an image of the world. And it’s by no means certain that the two images resemble each other at all. There are lots of examples here: different cultures, different economic backgrounds, different genders, different levels of education, different references and so on.
The receiver who hears what I say will naturally decode my message through their image of the world. You will see, no doubt, that this leaves plenty of scope for misunderstanding. My interpretation and the recipient's interpretation can result in our having two completely different pictures of the situation we are in. There is no guarantee, therefore, that what you say will end up as what you meant in the mind of the person you are talking to. How, then, can we minimise the possibility of such misunderstandings?
As people get to know each other better, the gap that is misunderstanding narrows. You discover that your colleague who sounds so severe at work is not really angry, just concerned about being clear, for example.
A short-cut to better communication in the workplace is to gather the team together and talk about how you want communication between you to function. Agreeing on some basic rules is a really good way of saving time on future misunderstandings.
Another tip for good communication comes from the world of radio. Radio hosts who have live programs are often taught to use this trick to fill time with talk when they don't always have anything to talk about. Here’s the blueprint: Say what you are going to do, do it and say what you have done.
Here is an example from working life: Your team has a considerable task to deal with. You have agreed on who is going to do what, and when the working day starts, you all share a list of the tasks you are going to solve during the day. You then do the tasks and, at the end of the day, you share a list of what you have done. Not difficult, but incredibly effective!
"You can get an awful long way by communicating well, treating each other with respect and, not least, keeping the door ajar in your own head because you might not be seeing the whole picture!"
Using slightly different language, my manager used to say "Assumptions are the start of all mistakes". He had an excellent point: in assuming that someone understands what you are thinking instead of saying it, you lean solely on your own worldview. You are not taking into account the possibility of viewing a situation in any other way than your own. Conversely, clearly repeating what you are thinking – often in several ways – minimises the space into which other interpretations can be inserted.
Occasionally, though, disagreements genuinely arise
When people work together every day over longer periods of time, it is almost inevitable that they will not always be on the same page. When this happens, it is important to remember that talking your way to a solution is possible in the vast majority of situations. We spoke to some experts in the field to glean some specific advice on how to resolve the commonest workplace conflicts. With help from the HR house, we made a list of the commonest conflicts in a workplace and how to solve them. Here is the list:
1. Conflicts concerning goals, means and methods
Such conflicts typically reflect disagreement about specific objectives, as well as the means and methods used as a basis for achieving those objectives. This may involve, for example, strategic priorities or prioritisation of work tasks.
Solution: We believe that openness and dialogue will lead to effective problem solving. Dialogue also helps create the basis for a culture that makes it easier for the parties to present their arguments and objections. Not only that, it simultaneously emphasises that good, clear communication is important. So, talk together and listen actively!
2. Conflicts over limited resources (money, time, space, staff etc.)
This type of conflict is often characterised by someone being dissatisfied with allocated resources or budgets. In the case of necessary layoffs, for example, affected employees may not immediately find it easy to understand. Either because they have no insight into the cause or are unable to see the big picture.
Solution: Greater level of information in advance and commitment to common goals. Here it is important that managers provide plenty of information, involve the employees and are open about the reality of the situation. If conflict persists, it may be wise to negotiate a compromise.
A manager who forces through change without informing, involving and being open will risk losing trust and dedication.
3. Conflicts about values and attitudes (what's right and what's wrong")
These are often deeper conflicts where people disagree about what is right and what is wrong.
Solution: Here you must first of all find out whether everyone in the company has bought into the common values and attitudes you want as a company. It is easier to discuss values and attitudes before a conflict arises, than when you are already in one. Facilitate dialogue and respect for each other; try to have open communication.
4. Personal conflicts ((Identity, self-esteem, rejection, breach of trust)
Here, we often talk about personal challenges that may be bound up with many different things. We have seen conflicts arise from a multitude of causes, but identity, self-esteem, rejection and breach of trust recur.
Conflicts of this type may be very complex and, not least, destructive, leading to a poor psychological working environment. Such situations imply emotional disagreement where the relationship between the parties has been damaged.
Solution: Open communication and active listening where the parties are given time to talk together and listen to each other's versions. If, as a manager, you are in doubt about how to proceed, you should seek help from another manager, a professional or from HR.
Now you have received a few tips on how to communicate better and how misunderstandings arise, and some examples of the commonest conflicts in a workplace and how to deal with them. Remember this is by no means a simple area, and that when conflicts begin to come to a head, it is only natural that emotions are provoked in both parties. Try to keep a cool head and breathe with your stomach.
Don’t forget, moreover, that it’s possible to save an enormous amount of time and stress by thinking about how to prevent conflicts. You can get an awful long way by communicating well, treating each other with respect and, not least, keeping the door ajar in your own head because you know, you might not be seeing the whole picture!