• March 22, 2022

How you communicate can play a starring role in workplace conflict

Communication issues are a common cause of workplace conflict existing across all industries. If not resolved, problematic communication can become a weapon of mass destruction on the inside and outside of the business. The good news is, that communication, so often the cause of conflict in the workplace can go from being a weakness to a strength, helping to maintain an agreeable and ideally productive workplace.

Communication issues

Like many conflict situations in life, often workplace disputes have issues relating to communication at their core. Issues around communication tend to fall into one of two buckets: 1. A complete absence of communication or 2. Misunderstood or ineffective communication.

An absence of communication: (when the message isn’t communicated)

A complete absence of communication from the top down and between colleagues provides a fertile breeding ground for conflict in the workplace. Unmet expectations, missed deadlines, a lack of purpose, no definition of roles and responsibilities, misaligned priorities and goals, accountability issues, no feedback…the list of carnage stemming from lack of communication goes on. Without any communication offering context around workplace decisions, employees will draw their own conclusions – and those conclusions may not be accurate, drastically impacting morale.

How the message is communicated

‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ is a great defence favoured by lousy communicators. In most scenarios, the messenger wouldn’t be a target if they managed to do their job right, which is to communicate effectively. In the workplace, there are five basic styles of communication that range from positive (assertive) to negative (manipulative). Sometimes people think they are great communicators, always sharing information, when in fact, it’s not what they communicate, but how they communicate that is the problem. Let’s dive into the different styles people use and the impact each communication style has in workplace conflicts.

Assertive communicator

Don’t confuse assertive with bossy – it’s not. Assertive communication is calm and measured. Often the style embraced by good listeners who use that skill to clearly express their needs/wants to each different audience. Assertive communicators can usually read the situation and communicate accordingly, which is needed to manage potential conflict and solve problems. An assertive communicator sees you and hears you. That means you know what is expected of you in a transparent and positive way. An assertive communicator also checks if the message is clear and is happy to explain things further if needed. And you feel comfortable asking. Nothing gets lost in translation and hopefully the job gets done, the deadline is met, and the end customer/user is satisfied.

 Aggressive communicator

A style favoured by the highly competitive, ‘winner takes all’ communicator. By communicating in an aggressive (read hostile and threatening) style, most people retreat – or disagree – simply because they feel they are being attacked rather than spoken to. Maybe you want to be spoken to like that by Michael Jordan in overtime when a championship is on the line – but for the remaining 99.8% of the time, it’s useless. And because of the intimidating way it’s being delivered, we don’t even hear what’s being said. Aggressive communicators don’t talk to you, they talk at you.

 Passive communicator

Often described as a ‘people pleaser’ style of communication because it is generally easy-going and avoiding of conflict. Sometimes messages will be laced with humour or self-depreciating anecdotes and presented in a passive style. But just because it’s passive doesn’t mean it isn’t highly effective – just ask one of the world’s best known passive communicators, Oprah Winfrey. While some passive communicators can struggle to express themselves clearly due to an almost pathological desire to avoid conflict, many passive communicators are also good at handling aggressive parties – as they don’t rise to the bait and are skilled at diffusing scenarios before they implode.

Passive – aggressive communicator

The love child of the previous two, this is a complicated style of communication that radiates toxicity and can easily create an environment for conflict to flourish. These communicators appear outwardly calm, but it’s an entirely different story on the inside. Passive-aggressive communicators try hard to hide what they really think about you or the situation – but the calm exterior only goes so far until negative traits like the sarcastic, condescending tone start to creep in and anger or resentment becomes the dominant tone. People simply don’t know where they stand when confronted by a passive-aggressive communicator, and much like an aggressive style, it’s ineffective because people are too busy disliking you to listen to what you are saying. If you have these tendencies, try getting to the root of anger and resentment lying just below the surface as a way of improving the way you communicate with people.

Manipulative communicator

A style mostly favoured by strategic villains the world over. With style attributes including cunning, scheming, deceit and control you can appreciate that despite its dreadful reputation, it is a communication style more commonplace that you would hope. Where there’s a manipulative communicator, motive is often called into question (much of the time motivation usually involves some form of personal gain) and when that happens, afterwards people can have a feeling of ‘being played’, which extinguishes trust and introduces avoidance strategies. When people refuse to communicate with others, conflict surely follows.

Recognising the communication style being used is a positive way of dealing with it

Bad communicators don’t become good communicators overnight. And most people communicate in a style that is a blend of one or two of the ones described above. A simple, and effective strategy to help you deal with a difficult communication style is to mirror or summarise the message back to the messenger. The ‘I just want to check I heard/understood/read that right. You would like me to…’ summary is an excellent way to ensure you understand what’s being asked of you as well as helping the communicator clarify the message. Once you understand the what, you can if needed, ask about the why. And try doing this in an assertive communication style.

Dealing with an absolute absence of communication is trickier – because usually the damage has already been done and you are knee-deep repairing the situation. What’s important here is a playback/feedback session that highlights the problem (no communication) and the fix (assertive communication). If you can do that, ideally you will have communicated clearly, the need for communication in the future.

As a final exercise, think about how you like being communicated to – what makes you listen, and what triggers you to switch off completely?

To help you prepare for mediation, we have created a library of helpful information including checklists, tips and added detail around the process of mediation. For useful and relevant information you can download for free, we encourage you to visit our resources page.

Author: Cath Pope, Mediator

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