A Practical Guide to Conflict Resolution: Communication

[As described in the introduction, this post is about the different ways we communicate, the impact that can have on conflict, and how to choose the best communication tool for the job.]

If you’re anything like me, you crave specific advice for conflict resolution. Say this. Say it in this way. Don’t say that. Don’t use words that are longer than 10 letters when translated into Brazilian Portuguese. That sort of thing. But instead of focusing on what or what not to say, the most useful specific advice I can give is actually to focus on where you communicate.

Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message”, and oh boy was he ever right. Every medium has different characteristics which impact how we communicate, and how conflict will spread or resolve. Here are just a few of the characteristics that matter:

  • Speed of communication, aka bandwidth. Most people can speak much faster than they can type.

  • Speed of response, aka latency. This can be anywhere from snail mail, which takes days per message, to instant messaging which is usually real-time.

  • Ability to absorb cross-talk. Laggy video-conferencing is particularly bad at this.

  • Audience size. Compare an in-person conversation to an email list with hundreds of subscribers.

  • Participant size. Are those hundred subscribers just reading, or can they add their own opinions to the mix?

  • Available side-channels. In-person communication gives you a whole bunch of important extra communication channels like tone of voice, facial expression and posture.

  • Norms. Most media are bound to specific codes of behaviour, either explicitly or implicitly.

With all of these variables, it’s no surprise that picking the right venue for your conflict is hugely valuable. Of course, you often don’t have a choice of where the conflict starts; they just do. But you always have the opportunity to move it, and it’s usually pretty easy when everyone involved is operating in good faith. Just go “hey, this would be easier to talk about in-person, do you mind if I swing by your desk?” and you’d be amazed at how easy it gets. Changing to a better venue is often both the easiest and the most effective thing you can do to resolve a conflict.

That said, with so many possible characteristics to consider it can be pretty daunting to figure out which one to suggest. Fortunately there’s an easy rule of thumb: in-person trumps everything, always. If in-person isn’t possible because people are physically too far apart, one-on-one video-conferencing can be a decent substitute as long as it isn’t too laggy.

There is one major caveat to the in-person rule, which is on the number of participants. If you have more than six people involved then the value of in-person conversation falls off pretty sharply, and you might be better off with something like a chat system that can handle that more effectively. Of course, it’s pretty rare that more than six people really need to be there; usually you can pick representatives from each group or otherwise cut the participants down to a reasonable size.

If neither in-person nor video chat are realistic, I’ve had pretty good luck aiming for whatever venue has the highest bandwidth, lowest latency, and smallest audience. However in rare cases, a venue with substantially higher latency can actually work in your favour as it gives people a chance to cool off before responding.

This post is short enough it doesn’t necessarily need a summary, but I wrote one anyway:

  1. Use the best available venue or communication medium.

  2. In-person trumps everything.

  3. Keep the number of participants small.

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