Module 7 of 8
In Progress

Communication in Conflict Situations

David Katz 20 Feb 2020
A Sudanese People’s Liberation Army soldier shakes hands with a Dinka tribesman in the Nuba mountains, Sudan, in 1997. Despite the debilitating effects of one of Africa’s longest civil wars, the Christians and Muslims in the remote Heiban region’s hills lived peaceably together under the control of the SPLA, both groups fiercely independent and proud of their religious freedom and cultural traditions.

Often, the only tool we have for resolving a conflict is our ability to talk things through. One half of the key to good communication in a conflict situation is the ability to ‘hear’ clearly what the other party is saying (and often what they are not saying), in a way that makes them feel heard. The other half is to communicate clearly what you want to say, in a way that will allow the other party to hear and understand your message – and that encourages them to be sympathetic to your needs and wishes.

Good communication in conflict situations eases tension, builds trust, strengthens relationships and makes people feel at ease, because they are mutually understood. At the same time, it remains firm on important points.

When you encounter conflict in a peacekeeping situation, it is often in the context of crisis or extreme tension. Peacekeeping often takes place in a cross-cultural environment, where there will be additional barriers to mutual understanding and trust.

Key Things to Learn

• Become aware of where your strengths and weaknesses lie in how you communicate in a conflict situation
• Gain a deeper understanding of how people see problems differently, and how important it is to have an awareness of your own perspective in a conflict
• Learn some methods for lowering tension and communicating effectively
• Learn about some cultural differences in communication
• Learn some basic facilitation skills

Resolving Conflict is All About Good Communication

In most cases, the only tools you have to resolve conflict are your communication skills. Good communication is more about listening than talking, and is about being sensitive to the cultural context in which you find yourself.

Improve Your Communication Skills

Communication is your primary tool as a conflict intervener. Your skills in this area are critical. An experienced mediator will do a lot more listening than talking.

A good conflict intervener will listen to a party in a conflict in a way that makes them feel heard, validates them, allows them to feel understood, elicits the information that is needed, and keeps communication open. Sometimes, all that is really needed for a conflict to be resolved is for the parties to feel that they have been really heard and understood by the other party. If there is a third party present, it is even more important that the parties feel heard, to build trust.

The good mediator will also communicate in a way that is direct, honest and open, with clarity about what they are trying to say, and no double messages.

Reflective Listening

Being a really good listener is an art form – and becoming good at the art is one of the skills needed to become an effective conflict intervener. Many people in conflict situations are confused, and cannot see their issues clearly. Reflective listening is like holding up a mirror to them, and you will be amazed at how effective this simple technique can be. It has a therapeutic quality, and may assist people to become aware of their own ability to solve their problems and attain greater clarity about what they want.

The approach will also give people a deep sense of feeling heard, which will build trust between parties and the intervener.

How to Listen Reflectively

Reflective listening is a non-directive style of listening. It involves listening carefully to what someone is saying for the ‘weight’ in their words, and reflecting it back to them. It does not involve asking questions, introducing your own views, or solving problems in any way. 

Reflective listening is about listening to the other person at a deep level, following the flow of the conversation, and allowing the person to lead you to where they want to go.

The following steps should be followed:

  1. Listen attentively to what the person is saying, without interrupting, directing or passing judgement in any way. Culturally appropriate indications of attention can be given, e.g. maintaining eye contact.
  2. Try to listen for the one thing that has ‘weight’ – where they are expressing strong emotion or opinions about which they feel strongly.
  3. Reflect that one thing back to them, using different words, amplifying the emotional content of the original message. Concentrate on feelings.
  4. Focus on the data, or information given, and don’t interpret what you think the person was trying to say.

Example

Party: “…And so those cheating managers didn’t do what they said they would, after telling us for so many hours at the meeting the day before that they would help us out… they never keep their word…”

Response: “So you’re feeling betrayed?”

Listening Skills

Being a really good listener is an art form – and becoming good at the art is one of the skills needed to become an effective conflict intervener.

Reflective Listening

Reflective listening is an appropriate tool to understand deeper issues, and build relationships with the parties.

If you emphasise the wrong thing, or even get your reflection wrong, don’t worry – the person will bring you back on track or correct you, and you will still achieve your objective.

You will be amazed at how effective this simple technique can be, although it needs a lot of practice to become effective at finding the one thing in everything that the person is saying that has most weight.

In a conflict mediation, people can become highly emotional, and this approach can be very calming and reassuring. A person receiving good reflective listening will feel completely heard.

Open-ended Questioning

When you need to find out specific information from the parties, using open-ended questions will assist you greatly to keep the discussion open and get more information. Close-ended questions can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, and will shut down discussion; an open-ended question invites more than just a specific response.

Here are four approaches to asking open-ended questions:

1. Repeat the question

They say, “You are not sensitive to our needs.”
You ask, “You feel that we are not sensitive to the needs of your group?”
Very often, they will come back with a more complete explanation of how they feel, and why; if they can’t substantiate it, they may back down.

2. Ask for feelings

They say, “My manager shouted at me today.”
You ask, “How did that make you feel?”
Maybe the response you will get is, “I was really embarrassed and felt bad, but I probably deserved it – I was two hours late for work.”

3. Ask for reactions

They say, “The UN says children from surrounding villages must attend our school.”
You ask, “And what’s your reaction to that?”
Instead of assuming their statement is final, your question may bring out some further information, e.g. “I can see that it’s necessary for those children to receive an education – but we want to keep our own teachers at the school.”

4. Ask for restatement

They say, “You cannot pass through this roadblock.”
You say, “I don’t see why you say that.”
Instead of repeating the words, chances are that they will come back with a more detailed explanation of the problem.

Don’t worry if the talking seems to take a circular route – the repetition can be frustrating, and it may seem as if you are going nowhere – but the person will eventually be able to tell you what they want to say.

Open questions invite participants to relate their own feelings, perceptions, needs and desires, or an account of the facts in their own words. They are often what, when and how questions. Closed questions already have evaluative content and invite the participant to agree with the facilitator’s own conclusion.

Nonviolent Communication Exchange

The Centre for Nonviolent Communication has developed an approach to communicating in a conflict situation that is designed to de-escalate tension and conflict potential while, at the same time, allowing parties to communicate clearly about their needs.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) acknowledges that feelings play an enormously important role in conflict situations. If someone is feeling angry, frustrated, insecure or frightened, these potentially very strong emotions cloud the substantive issues behind the conflict. The conflict quickly becomes focused on the emotions, rather than the original issue.

NVC allows emotions to be expressed, and received by the other parties, while simultaneously focusing on substantive issues. It works perfectly if both parties to the conflict are practising it, but it is also effective when one party is communicating ‘violently’.

How Does it Work?

Each time you speak, follow the following guideline:

1. ‘When I see/hear that you…’

Acknowledge what the other party has said, trying to recognise what is important in what they are saying (they will feel heard).

2. ‘Then I feel…’

Acknowledge how you are feeling. Are you frustrated that they are not hearing you? Glad that your problems are being taken into consideration?

3. ‘My need is to…’

State clearly what you need to get the problem resolved – so that they can understand what is motivating you in the conflict, and what you need to reach resolution. Keep restating it.

4. ‘And my request is…’

Very often, people in conflicts do not make clear requests of what they want from each other – sometimes they don’t even know. Keep this down to one or two things. What is most important to you?

Try to express clearly what is going on inside of you, without blame or judgement.

Nonviolent Communication was developed by the Centre for Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org).

A Mantra for Organisational Peace

Ten things you can do to contribute daily to peace within yourself, your family and your organisation.

  1. Spend some time each day quietly reflecting on how you would like to relate to yourself and others.
  2. Remember that all human beings have the same needs.
  3. Check your intention to see if you are as interested in others getting their needs met as your own.
  4. When asking someone to do something, check first to see if you are making a request or a demand.
  5. Instead of saying what you don’t want someone to do, say what you do want the person to do.
  6. Instead of saying how you want someone to be, say what action you’d like the person to take, that you hope will help the person to be that way.
  7. Before agreeing or disagreeing with anyone’s opinions, try to tune in to what the person is feeling and needing.
  8. Instead of saying ‘no’, say what need of yours prevents you from saying ‘yes’.
  9. If you are feeling upset, think about what need of yours is not being met, and what you could do to meet it, instead of thinking about what’s wrong with others or yourself.
  10. Instead of praising someone who did something you like, express your gratitude by telling the person what need of yours that action met.

A peace mission can be a very pressurised, intense place to be. Taking some time at the beginning or end of each day to focus on such a mantra – or one you’ve written for yourself – can assist greatly to cope with the stresses of life in such a context, and enable you to be more effective in your work.

Working in Multinational Teams

Being part of a peace mission involves being thrown together for a short period of time in a team with strangers from many parts of the world, and having to get along, live together, and work effectively to achieve the aims of the peace mission.

There is huge potential for conflict – since you will have diverse understandings of the way things should be done, may speak different languages and may have different cultural and religious practices, and thus interpret many things differently. And you may well be in a highly pressured or stressful situation.

Dealing with conflict on the mission is not just about the warring parties – you may experience the most conflict at home or at work. Dealing with conflict becomes a daily process of building harmony and peace in your new ‘family’.

Non-verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication is a very powerful form of communication. Non-verbal communication is not something that we choose to do – it happens whenever we communicate. Non-verbal messages are often unconscious for both the sender and the receiver of the message, yet they affect the way in which the message is interpreted.

No matter what words are being spoken, or in what tone of voice, if the speaker is leaning over you, you are likely to feel intimidated.

Non-verbal messages take a number of forms: they can be a facial expression, or the way in which one of the parties positions his or her body in relation to the other.  It is important to be aware of the non-verbal messages you may be sending in any communication. You should also be aware that different cultures have different ‘rules’ about body language.

Cultural Rules

An NGO visited the king of a  traditional society, where they were working in education. Before delegates could meet with the king, they were briefed for one-and-a-half hours by the king’s aides about what they could and could not do in his presence. For example, crossing your legs in front of the king was absolutely forbidden.

Cultural Awareness

Culture is acquired through the process of socialisation. We learn relative values and appropriate behaviours from our fellow community members. One level of culture deals with obvious, or observable aspects – clothing, language, food and so on.

There is another level, which we cannot always see, and which includes our shared ideas, beliefs and values. These usually become apparent when people from different social systems interact.

Our modern world is increasingly multicultural. Individuals do not embody a single culture, but have often been influenced and formed by multiple cultures. Underlying group identity also has a strong impact on the way we experience culture – age, gender, class, profession and religion all affect who we are as human beings.

Culture colours everything we see or do. It is impossible to leave our cultural lenses behind during our interactions. Our perspective and experience is a filter through which we interpret events.

Cultural Difference

In Western culture, looking people in the eye is seen as a sign of being honest and straightforward, and avoiding looking someone in the eye is interpreted as a sign of weakness or deceit. In many traditional cultures, it is considered impolite and a sign of disrespect for a younger person (or person of lesser status) to look an older person (or a person of higher status) in the eye.

Making Judgements

Human beings frequently make generalisations about, and attribute characteristics to, people. We create stereotypes. When we do this with cultural groups, there is a danger of developing negative stereotypes, which leads to prejudice.

A cycle of prejudice begins when we start judging other cultures by our own set of standards, to define the world around us. Lack of knowledge or an unwillingness to learn can result in an unintentional conflict, or misunderstanding.

The prejudices are often based on imperfect information and are normally filtered through an individual’s background and experience. The only way to break this cycle is to be aware of cultural differences, and try to understand their origins.

Cross-cultural Communication Matrix

How aware are you of the ‘rules’ of your own culture, and of other cultures? Take a little test by completing the table below. Should people maintain eye contact when speaking in your culture? Does this depend on seniority, age or gender? Name two other cultures with which you are familiar – do the ‘rules’ vary in those cultures? In the empty spaces at the bottom of the table, fill in some other non-verbal signals of your choice. How confident are you that you know how to act with respect, and without causing offence, in a strange culture?

Calling Seniority into Question

It is easy to make mistakes that can have a long-term impact on your credibility and acceptance in a community, and one thus has to be very careful when working in a foreign cultural environment. One such example came in January 2000, during the early days of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), when an international staff member scolded a local staff member for taking some food without first asking. The reaction of the local staff member was very aggressive and almost violent. 

The international staff member only realised much later that the reason why the local staff member reacted so aggressively was because he was the oldest person among the local staff in that office. He was therefore respected for his seniority, and was the de facto leader in the group. The public scolding by the international staff member made him lose face (honour) in front of the other members of the local staff and, by extension, the local community. He was thus defending his honour and his place in society. Because of his position of seniority among the local staff, and because the other staff did not want to be disloyal and disrespectful to their elder, the relations between the international staff member and all the local staff was strained for months after this incident. 

The international staff member learned a valuable lesson in cultural awareness and conflict resolution. She realised that, should such an incident occur again, she would convey her concern or grievance to the person in private, and in a manner more respectful to their status within the local community. 

When working in a culturally diverse environment as peacekeepers, we have to question our own cultural expectations carefully to avoid stereotyping or forming prejudices against other groups.

Cultural Specifics

Language is culturally specific. Cultural undertones always exist when a person is speaking in English and it is not their native language. You may not always understand, and may have to ask the person to repeat themselves, or express themselves in a different way. Idiomatic language should be avoided as much possible.

Humour can be good, but be aware that humour does not easily cross cultural boundaries. What is considered humorous in one culture can easily cause offence in another.

Body language is very important, as it conveys a lot of things that you do not say. Different gestures have different meanings in different cultures. A smile will, however, never be misunderstood. A polite handshake between people of the same sex is accepted in most cultures.

A Sense of History

Cultural sensitivity is especially important during the more ceremonial parts of a negotiation or mediation process, and thus especially the opening and closing sessions, and any sessions that involve the community or an outside audience. For instance, during the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), military observers were called upon to resolve a dispute between two villages. The one village wanted to break away from the other and create its own chieftaincy.  The military observers gathered the leaders of the two villages together on a given day, and a large crowd assembled to observe the proceedings. When the first side had the opportunity to give their side of the story, one of the elders rose up and gave an account of the history of the village by reciting an epic poem that was conveyed in song. This lasted more than an hour, and was almost impossible to translate, as it was rich in idiom. 

The military observers did not understand why it was necessary to recount the whole history of the village, and would have preferred it if the proceedings focused on the problem at hand, but wisely decided not to interfere with this introduction. They correctly assumed that it was part of a cultural ritual that was necessary to get the negotiations off the ground in a proper order. Mediating such conflicts requires much patience and understanding, and it is almost always best to follow the lead of your local hosts. If they don’t seem impatient, alarmed, upset or frustrated by a certain action, neither should you.  

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