Role of Communication in Conflict Resolution

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As much as all human beings try to avoid conflicts, no one has ever succeeded in the effort. Conflicts seem to come up from all directions in life. This calls for a more practical solution to tackling the issue of conflicts. It calls for a method through which this inevitable phenomenon of human life can be reverted so as to minimize the harm expected or even make the conflicts constructive. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, conflicts are not always negative. Sometimes conflicts can be manipulated to give a positive outcome. This part of the essay will highlight the two types of conflicts, constructive conflict, and destructive conflict, and point out the role of communication in both two types of conflict (Deutsch, 1973).

Wilmot and Hocker (2009) define conflict as a situation where two independent parties with incompatible goals, interference perception, and a limitation of resources engage in a struggle. Depending on the assumptions of the two parties, the conflict can either end up as a destructive conflict or a constructive conflict. Apart from the assumptions of the two parties, several other factors can contribute to the outcome of the conflict. Deutsch (1973) identifies the factors that lead to the outcome of a conflict. The individual characteristics, including values, objectives, motivations, intellectual capacity, aspirations, availability of resources, and beliefs, play a key role in the outcome of the conflict. In addition to the individual characteristics, the two parties’ relationship prior to the conflict, their attitudes towards each other, their expectations, and the level of trust between each other could highly dictate the outcome of the conflict. The third factor that determines the outcome of the conflict is the nature of the conflict itself. Its severity, the extent to which it has reached, and the weight of the significance of the issue determine the direction of the conflict. The social environment also plays a role in the determining of a conflict. The presence of encouragements or deterrents leads to either a constructive or destructive conflict. Finally, the presence of any other party and its relationship with the parties in conflict and also its reason for involvement in the conflict can give the direction of the conflict.

The perceptions by an individual as determined by the factors mentioned above thus make the person decide whether the conflict becomes a constructive conflict or a destructive conflict. A destructive conflict occurs when an individual views the conflict as adversarial or sees a win-lose situation and, above all, sees the conflict from a competitive battle point of view. On the other hand, a constructive conflict occurs when an individual sees the conflict from a positive point of view and finds it to be a mutual challenge that calls for cooperation in order to come up with a mutual solution. For an individual to form a positive or a negative perception of a conflict, the above-mentioned factors play a key role (Deutsch, 1973).

Communication plays another role in determining the outcome of a conflict. Several models of communication have tried to explain this role and how it affects the outcome. The encoding-decoding model views communication as an exercise of information encoding, transmission, and decoding. Shared codes and clarity in the transmission channels are the factors that contribute to an effective communication process. Any impediment on any part of this process can result in destructive conflicts. Message mistranslation, availability of gaps, and too many noises can lead to misunderstanding of a message and hence a destructive conflict. Clear communication with fewer noises and comprehensible codes will therefore lead to understanding and thus develop a constructive conflict (Deutsch, 1973).

The intentionalist model purports that words carry with them different meanings that an individual takes a meaning that is compatible with his perception of the situation. The two parties in a conflict will always understand each other hence make the conflict constructive if the other party’s communicative intentions are properly understood. This can be facilitated back a common background of culture and language. When a communication barrier occurs through misinterpretation of the opposite party’s communicative intention, a destructive conflict arises. This can result if one party interprets the other’s intention with preconceived notions (Krauss & Morsella, 2000).

In addition to the intentionalist model, there is the perspective-taking model. In this model, it is believed that miscommunication can occur even under a similar background of language and culture. Prejudice and stereotyping could affect the communicative intention, thus causing a conflict to take the destructive direction. To achieve a constructive conflict, one must ensure that the audience’s perspective fits properly in his message design (Krauss & Morsella, 2000).

Finally, the dialogic model views a communication process to be a collaborative process whose meaning arises from the communicative situation. As a result, this model calls upon the listener to be an active participant in the finding of a common solution. His role in the communication process is asking questions where there is no understanding, clarifying all ambiguous statements. This is, therefore, important in determining the outcome of the conflict. If the message is poorly transmitted or interpreted, the outcome is destructive communication, and if the message is clearly transmitted and properly interpreted, it results in a constructive conflict (Krauss & Morsella, 2000).

Power Perception and Conflict Management

Perception of power plays a great role in the outcome of a conflict. However, power should not be perceived as a force or a possession. With such perceptions, there are no chances that a party can dominate a conflict. This is to say, a party with a strong resource base can still lose to a less powerful party in a conflict. Power should therefore be viewed as an ability to end up with a win-win situation in a conflict. This part of the essay will try to point out how the perception of power can affect communication and thus lead to different behaviors in a conflict resolution process. According to Zartman (2008), perception is, to some extent, different from reality. This can lead to decisions that are baseless and which might fail in the event of reality. In addition, the power structure in itself cannot cause a conflict—the conflict results from the perception of the power imbalance. A party might feel that they possess more power in comparison to their counterparts in a conflict. On the other hand, a party can feel to be less advantaged as compared to their opponents in the conflict. This perception can make them form a preconceived result of the conflict. Therefore, a good approach to a conflict is based on the approach to power in terms of the contestants’ perception and not the objective, scientific-based approach. With the approach based on the perception of power by the parties involved in a conflict, one views power imbalance exactly the same way the parties are viewing it.

How, therefore, does this perception of power affect communication? Kaufman (2003) identifies how frames contribute to an individual’s formation of understanding of complex information. Through frames, an individual is able to make an interpretation of the world and even give their interpreted representation to others. Through such interpretations, complex phenomena are placed into categories that are understandable and coherent. Therefore, through selective simplification, frames offer meanings to several events through the filtration of an individual’s perception and hence offering an avenue through which the individual can approach a problem.

Basing on the intentionalist model in communication, it is evident that an individual’s perception can greatly influence his interpretation of the words spoken by the other party in a conflict. Kaufman goes ahead to point out that the intractability of a conflict can be greatly hampered by preconceived perceptions because through this, events are likely to be interpreted in an incompatible way. When the parties involved in a conflict build frames of an imbalance of power based on their beliefs, experiences, and values, the decisions made by both parties eventually become affected. This creates a rift between the two parties in terms of world interpretation, both consciously and subconsciously. Through such a perception of power, disputants may use the perception to interpret the other parties’ actions and also to strategize to their advantage. This, therefore, shows that power perception can easily affect the decisions made by a party before, the interpretation of the events and the words being spoken, and also form the preconceived notions which will eventually result in the formation of the direction of a conflict (Kaufman, 2003).

Third-Party Role in Conflict Resolution

Third-party involvement in a conflict can greatly determine its outcome. These are intermediaries, either an individual or a group of people, who involve themselves in a conflict with the aim of assisting the disputing parties to come up with a mutual solution. Their main role is the assistance of a side or both sides to have a clear analysis of the conflict and hence design an appropriate and effective response to the problem. In addition to this, they play the role of facilitating, arranging for meetings, agenda-setting, and offer guidelines for a discussion that is productive. It is also the role of third parties to record the resolutions reached in the process of conflict resolution (CRC, 1998).

Among the most powerful third-party groups are the mediators. These are a group of people that not only initiates discussions but also defines the structure and process to be used during the discussion, which can effectively assist the parties to come up with a resolution that will be viewed as a win-win situation by both parties. It is, therefore, the role of the mediators to hear both sides of the conflicts and the interests that each party has, summon them into a meeting, and explain to them the importance of the underlying interests and how they could both refocus their initial interests for the common good. This happens through analyzing both sides of the conflict, giving a clear analysis of the different views that are divergent and hence allowing the parties to come up with a solution that offers a common understanding for both the parties. In most cases, mediators do not impose solutions to a conflict. They give suggestions that are later discussed by the disputing parties who are allowed to refuse or accept the solution (CRC, 1998).

In collaborative conflict resolution, the parties in a conflict do not attack each other. Instead, they attack the problem that is leading to the conflict. This is the main characteristic of collaborative conflict resolution. The components that are essential in this type of conflict resolution are identification of an appropriate technique, creation of an appropriate confrontational approach, and finally, taking the other person’s perspective in all approaches to the situation (Umiker, 1997).

How, therefore, is mediation related to collaboration? As pointed out earlier, mediation does not involve imposing a solution on disputants. The mediator simply offers a solution and explains how it would be of importance to the parties. They are eventually left to discuss and find a middle point that will be beneficial to both of them. This means that the two parties are involved in a discussion where all the grievances are aired, and one solution for both parties is found. Without a collaborative approach, it is impossible for the disputants to come up with a solution. It calls for the disputants to listen and understand the positions of the opposing parties and thus try to understand the situation from the other party’s point of view. It also calls for a technique that will assist in the formation of the structure and process of discussions and, finally, the method through which the parties will meet before coming up with the mutual position. All these are characteristics of a collaborative approach to conflict resolution. We can therefore be justified to say that, to some extend, mediation is a form of the collaborative approach to conflict resolution.


  1. Conflict Research Consortium. (1998). Third Party Intervention. University of Colorado.
  2. Deutsch, M., 1973 The Resolution of Conflict. New Haven CT: Yale University Press
  3. Kaufman, S. (2003)”Frames, framing and reframing.” CR Information, Version IV.
  4. Krauss, R. and Morsella, E. “Communication and conflict.” Deutsch, M. and Coleman, P. (Eds) The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000, pp. 131-143.
  5. Umiker, W. (1997). Collaborative Conflict Resolution. Pensilvania State University, Health Care Supervisory. 15(3), 1997: 70-75
  6. Wilmot, W & Hocker, J., (2001). Interpersonal Conflict 6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill
  7. Zartman, W. (2008). Negotiation and Conflict Management: Essays on Theory and Practice. Boston: Routledge

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