Communications and Perceptions

In my coaching, I talk a lot about communication and personality styles. While there are many different ways to describe them, there are three fundamental communication styles:

  1. Nonassertive
  2. Assertive
  3. Aggressive

Each of us has a preference, but we’re also capable of switching from one to another, as appropriate.

However, we are sometimes unaware of how others perceive our default style. You might think you’re being appropriately assertive when talking to a coworker, but if they are sensitive or resentful, they might perceive you to be aggressive.

Add to the mix gender differences, our personal agendas, cultural values, and just plain misunderstandings, it’s easy to see how communications between people can breakdown and breed conflict. I see this happen all the time in organizations.

As we sometimes have a skewed perception of ourselves, it can be hard to know how the language, tone of voice, and general vibe we’re accustomed to using might be misinterpreted by others. We have to suppress our ego and express humility to understand that, sometimes, we just aren’t communicating what we think we are.

Many indigenous peoples around the world practice a philosophy where they are deeply in touch with a conscious intelligent cosmos. To put it more simply, they recognize that there is an energy in all of us, and that is what we usually focus on to the exclusion of everything else.

When we learn how to release that energy and let it expand, we can grow our awareness beyond our small, personal focus and connect to everything around us. Although this may sound very spiritual (and it is!), there is also a very practical side to this philosophy. By learning to expand our awareness beyond ourselves, we can connect to other people in a deeper way. This can allow us to better understand their point of view and where they are coming from, a very useful skill if you are trying to resolve conflict.

How Leaders Contribute to Conflict

It’s the job of a manager and leader to navigate conflict and defuse situations before they can become real problems. However, there are occasions when leaders actually contribute to conflict by communicating ambiguously, either intentionally or unintentionally.

The majority of us wish to avoid serious conflict, but we can sometimes “talk out of both sides of our mouths” and poorly communicate mixed messages when we are trying to understand all sides of an issue. This kind of ambiguous communication can foster an organizational climate that discourages commitment at best, and promotes conflicts at worst.

I’m not saying that leaders and managers do this on purpose (although some do). When trying to deal with opposing viewpoints, the message a leader is trying to communicate can get diluted or ambiguous. That is the danger of trying to cater to the needs and desires of a wide audience. In trying to please everyone, these leaders can craft messages that border on double-speak.

Leaders in organizations need to be more direct, frank, and clear when confronting conflict. I’d like to see more people stand up and remove the barriers that prevent candor. Why can’t more leaders just tell it like it really is?

It’s because many executives are sitting too close to the blackboard to see their communication errors. An unbiased professional coach or consultant can spot this weakness and help correct misguided approaches that contribute to conflict.

How Organizations Contribute to Conflict

Several conditions make a workplace fertile ground for conflict:

  1. If an organization has a rigid hierarchical structure, with an authoritarian leadership culture, you can expect incessant arguments and a robust rumor mill. In this type of environment, open communications are discouraged.
  2. Is there a poorly instituted reward/promotional system, where unfair favoritism occurs? This can breed understandable resentment in those who aren’t in “favor”.
  3. When managers are forced to compete for limited resources, their agendas can prevent them from getting along with others. They become more concerned with their personal or departmental gains and forget about the overall well-being of the organization and the individuals who work there.
  4. Change itself can destabilize relations because people tend to struggle when they’re forced out of their comfort zones. Companies involved in mergers and/or acquisitions, for example, experience more conflict. Rapidly changing environments create a ripe atmosphere for stress, anxiety, and misunderstandings.

What do you think about these possible sources of conflict? Do you think that they can actually create more conflict instead of helping people do their work in the best possible environment? Could conflict management from a position of positive communicate help? I’d love to hear your comments.