Often when you present to an audience, you are communicating to a large diverse group, many of whom have different points view from you. The majority of your audience will likely have different thoughts and feelings due to factors such as; culture, education, beliefs, and life experience. When communicating to a diverse audience there is always a chance for conflict to arise, particularly during workshops or discussions where an agreement needs to me made. Whether it be in the form of a vocal minority making accusations during a Q and A session, or opposing groups arguing in a workshop conflict plays a major role in communication. As a communicator it is vitally important to not only be prepared for conflict and how to resolve it, but to also be ready to use conflict in a positive way to communicate more clearly and make your work better.
The majority of people in the world do not like conflict or confrontation and will generally will try to avoid it if possible. In many cases the word conjures up images of violence and ill will towards others. Although in reality there are many types of conflict most of which do not involve violence and can be used constructively. Conflict can be defined in different ways, such as; as a serious disagreement, an argument, an incompatibility between opinions and principles, or even a prolonged armed struggle. Despite the many definitions of conflict most of the time conflict centers around a simple disagreement of ideals. As a communicator being able to recognize and deal with conflict can help transfer knowledge to your audience and make for a smooth presentation. In this post we will see some examples of how to use conflict to improve a message as well as tips for resolving conflict. Here I am using the generic definition of conflict as a disagreement or incompatible point of view.
Using Conflict to Your Advantage When Communicating
The majority of us will attempt to avoid conflict, even if it blatantly obvious and unavoidable. This is the first misconception of conflict that needs to be changed. Conflict is not necessarily a negative experience, since it can be used in a constructive way to improve our work or character. Conflict can come in the form of a simple disagreement or it can explode into a storm of vitriol and hate. The key to using conflict as an advantage when communicating, is knowing when to speak your mind candidly without the fear of backlash. As with many aspects of communicating, preparing before you actually present is immensely important.
First, you must understand both sides of the topic or argument. Whether you think you are right or backed up by empirical facts is irrelevant in a conflict. Before you communicate it is more important to understand the entirety of the topic. Preparing with as much information as possible will help you learn where misconceptions arise and address before they turn into a conflict. Remember the old saying “there are three sides to every story, your side their side and the truth.” So keep in mind that most people, despite our best intentions, put a bias on the information we present. Try to keep the material as objective as possible to make your message clear and concise. Think about things like how the other side might perceive the information through a subjective lens, and prepare information to address those biases in your presentation.
Second, you will want to understand your audience, how they think, and how they might respond to your presentation. Remember that they may be more open minded than you give them credit for. For example in climate science there is actually a lot more people who believe climate change is happening than not. There is very vocal minority believe it to be a conspiracy theory. And finally there is a large group which simply need more information to make a decision. If someone were to disagree with what you present in a climate talk, it may simply be from being misinformed or lack of information. Knowing your audience can help inform people and resolve misconceptions within the audience with facts.
Third, consider how conflict might scrutinize your work and improve the quality of your message. If you present a controversial topic and create a large atmosphere of conflict in doing so, it may mean that your message is convoluted or difficult to understand. Knowing whether your audience is misinformed or that your message is not well constructed is key. Conflict can help you discover holes in your story, reveal unknown biases in your work, and address underlying issues or controversies. Instead of there simply being a misinformed audience, you may need to reevaluate your work and improve the way it is presented. Remember to not take anything too personally the idea is to use the conflict in a positive way to address issues.
Fourth, consider what the goal of your presentation is. Think about what your ideal outcome would be for the discussion session, workshop, presentation, Q and A etc. By taking time to think about the outcome you can make sure that what you are communicating is in line with the goals you mean to accomplish. Conflict will arise if your goals and what you are communicating do not align. If conflict does occur it may be a indicator that your message is unclear or that the audience has begun to mistrust you because your goals feel like a covert subterfuge. Make sure that your message and also the language you are using convey your goals clearly.
Finally, in Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk she explains how conflict can be used to solve problems, improve quality of work by a group or individual, and how taking a risk of dealing with conflict can actually save lives. Margaret gives a good overview (not to mention that she is a great communicator in general) of how we need to change our outlook towards conflict and use it in a positive way.
Resolving Conflict Through Communication Skills
In times when conflict is not beneficial to you or your message it is likely that resolution methods be used. Examine what the source of the conflict is and try to see if it can be quickly resolved by meeting someone’s need. You can then try to negotiate to resolve the situation, but if that doesn’t work you will need to manage the conflict carefully to resolve it. the manner by which conflicts are resolved can have big impacts on the relationships between people and organizations. 3 Avoiding conflict or trying to superficially smooth over a problem between interested parties can help in the short term, but doesn’t solve the overall problem and therefore conflict will likely occur in the future. 1
Often conflict is not the caused by the literal problem or topic at hand, but rather caused by the response of the people who are invested in the problem. 2 As a communicator one way to dissolve conflict is to begin by understanding the problem thoroughly. Learn who is involved, what it is about, type of conflict (misunderstanding, dependent on circumstances, misdirected, etc.), and overarching personal beliefs. 2 Being able to trust and work together between parties that have opposing views is critical for success, with communication being the key to building trust. 3 Knowing the cause of the conflict can then help you work towards a resolution that will diffuse it. 2 Work with the people involved to develop a better understanding of both sides of the situation. Consider how the conflict evolved over time or is expressed, and think about potential solutions that will be mutually agreeable. 2 Most people will recognize that investing time and resources to resolving a conflict is mutually beneficial to everyone involved. 2 Be straightforward and name the conflict and point out that it is in everyone’s best interest to resolve it.
In the most extreme cases a third party may be needed to intervene as a non biased moderator. In these cases relationships and trust can be rebuilt through the mediator. 2 It is important to remember that even with the help of a mediator and all the resolution techniques, sometimes you may not be able to resolve the conflict. In those cases it is probably best for everyone to walk away, allow emotions and tempers to calm down and try again another time.
1. Dant, R. P., & Schul, P. L. (1992). Conflict resolution processes in contractual channels of distribution. The Journal of Marketing, 38-54.
2. Girard, K., & Koch, S. J. (1996). Conflict Resolution in the Schools: A Manual for Educators. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94101..
3. Mohr, J., & Spekman, R. (1994). Characteristics of partnership success: partnership attributes, communication behavior, and conflict resolution techniques. Strategic management journal, 15(2), 135-152.