Communication Strategies for Addressing Conflict

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Whenever I work with churches that are experiencing serious conflict, especially those that have reached the point of impasse, communication issues commonly emerge. Regularly, parishioners tell me that poor communications are at the root of their congregation’s problems. Miscommunication, they say, has created much of the hurt.

To deepen connection or clarify communication, one must first lower the anxiety or static. Only then will we see a significant increase in our ability to hear and connect soulfully.

But when people talk about lack of communication, they are almost always pointing to some deeper meaning that they might not even be aware of. In the simple act of communication — or miscommunication — much more is going on than we realize. Communication begins at the level of cognitive interaction, as two or more people try to exchange and understand thoughts and ideas. But for communication to be effective, it must move beyond pure cognition to the level of the heart or the emotions. This deeper communication involves the senses, body and soul.

Our efforts to communicate with one another are filled with and shaped by emotion. When we are anxious, for example, our ability to hear or connect genuinely with another human being lessens. To deepen connection or clarify communication, one must first lower the anxiety or static. Only then will we see a significant increase in our ability to hear and connect soulfully.

Such deep connections are essential for genuine communication. Without them, deep communication is unlikely to occur. In many congregations, communication problems stem from the phenomenon of “cut-offs” — breaks that occur in important relationships. When cut-offs occur in congregations and in families, anxiety heightens, the flow of information is skewed, the balance is upset, and the system undergoes a kind of shock.

The important role that connection plays is vividly illustrated by the words “communion” and “communication.” Deriving from a word that means “together,” these two words speak to the heart of our challenge. Communion means a merging of spirit. When we break bread together, we deepen the bonds among us, and when we eat the communion bread, we become one body in Christ. For communication to occur, some level of communion or connection is a must. When those twocomm words happen, a third comm word constellates — community. Listening openly and honestly is a powerful way to communion/connection. In the silence of listening, we feel this comm, the silence of oneness.

Silence, of course, is also a prerequisite for true communication. If one person wants to be listened to and to connect with another, he or she must first practice silence and listen, assuring the other that he or she has been heard. Effective leaders not only listen for themselves, but also help others listen as well. Leaders create and hold open a space where individuals and whole communities can listen to each other. Listening is a sacred act that helps people connect, reconnect and be in communion.

One of the most effective ways I have found to help large groups move from conflict toward communication and communion is to host a “Listening to Each Other” session, designed to (1) model non-reactive listening, (2) coach responsible speaking, (3) siphon toxicity out of the system, and (4) allow all to have a voice and to hear for themselves. The following are some of the strategies that I have found helpful in building connection, communication, communion and community:

Listening authentically. Listening is an art and a sacred act. You can be taught what to say and how to say it and even how to sit when you’re saying it, but the heart of good listening is authenticity. People read not only your words, but what’s going on inside you. If your stance isn’t genuine, the words won’t matter.

Questioning. Questions are powerful communication tools. The way they are used can change both the direction and outcome of a leader. Therefore, questions should be used with intention. The questions we ask determine the information we get and the role we will play in the situation we are encountering — conflict or impasse.

Summarizing. Summarizing what has been said can be very effective when used immediately after the parties have spoken. It can be used periodically throughout a conversation to clarify issues and help all parties know and feel they are heard.

Acknowledging. Acknowledging is a skill in which the listener hears and feeds back the emotion and content of the speaker’s message.

Reframing. “Framing” is how one defines, describes or conceptualizes a conflict. “Reframing” means taking the essence of what the other person says and translating it into concepts that are more helpful. It involves walking down a new path and inviting the other person or persons to join you — to look at and think differently about the subject at hand.

Silence. Intentionally allow a moment of silence when emotions are high or someone says something that may require thought or a pause. Intentional silence is more powerful than just taking a breath or thinking about where to go next.

Finally, as suggested above, communication, like community, cannot be faked. It’s not something you can do just because you are supposed to. When people are really communicating, they are listening and speaking because they are curious about what the other has to say. They genuinely want to know and, even more important, they careabout the other’s perspective.

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Newsletter and is used with their permission.
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About Author

Photo of Craig Gilliam

Dr. W. Craig Gilliam is the Founder and Director of Gilliam & Associates, LLC. that works with organizations, teams, and religious communities of various faith traditions. He is also the director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church and adjunct instructor at SMU.


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