10.5 Communication and Conflict

Common Communication Behaviours During Conflict

In this section, we will discuss some common communication behaviours that observed during conflict including apologies/concessions; excuses/justifications; refusals; appeasement/positivity; avoidance/evasion; gunnysacking; serial arguing; incivility; and hurtful messages.


Most common of the remedial strategies, an apology is the most straightforward means by which to admit responsibility, express regret, and seek forgiveness.  Apologies are most effective if provided in a timely manner and involve a self-disclosure. Apologies occurring after the discovery of a transgression by a third party are much less effective. Though apologies can range from a simple, “I’m sorry” to more elaborate forms, offenders are most successful when offering more complex apologies to match the seriousness of the transgression.


Rather than accepting responsibility for a transgression through the form of an apology, a transgressor who explains why they engaged in behavior is engaging in excuses or justifications. While excuses and justifications aim to minimize blame on the transgressor, the two address blame minimization from completely opposite perspectives. Excuses attempt to minimize blame by focusing on a transgressor’s inability to control their actions (e.g., “How would I have known my ex-girlfriend was going to be at the party.”) or displace blame on a third party (e.g., “I went to lunch with my ex-girlfriend because I did not want to hurt her feelings.”). Conversely, a justification minimizes blame by suggesting that actions surrounding the transgression were justified or that the transgression was not severe. For example, a transgressor may justify having lunch with a past romantic interest, suggesting to their current partner that the lunch meeting was of no major consequence (e.g., “We are just friends.”).


Refusals are where a transgressor claims no blame for the perceived transgression. This is a departure from apologies and excuses/justifications which involve varying degrees of blame acceptance. In the case of a refusal, the transgressor believes that they have not done anything wrong. Such a situation points out the complexity of relational transgressions. The perceptions of both partners must be taken into account when recognizing and addressing transgressions. Research has shown that refusals tend to aggravate situations, rather than serve as a meaningful repair strategy.


Appeasement is used to offset hurtful behavior through the transgressor ingratiating themselves in ways such as promising never to commit the hurtful act or being overly kind to their partner. Appeasement may elicit greater empathy from the offended, through soothing strategies exhibited by the transgressor (e.g., complimenting, being more attentive, spending greater time together). However, the danger of appeasement is the risk that the actions of transgressors will be viewed as being artificial. For example, sending your partner flowers every day resulting from infidelity you have committed, may be viewed as downplaying the severity of the transgression if the sending of flowers is not coupled with other soothing strategies that cause greater immediacy.


Avoidance involves the transgressor making conscious efforts to ignore the transgression (also referred to as “silence”). Avoidance can be effective after an apology is sought and forgiveness is granted (i.e., minimizing discussion around unpleasant subjects once closure has been obtained). However, total avoidance of a transgression where the hurt of the offended is not recognized and forgiveness is not granted can result in further problems in the future. As relational transgressions tend to develop the nature of the relationship through drawing of new rules/boundaries, avoidance of a transgression does not allow for this development. Not surprisingly, avoidance is ineffective as a repair strategy, particularly for instances in which infidelity has occurred.


In Chapter 7, we learned about gunnysacking (or backpacking) as the imaginary bag we all carry into which we place unresolved conflicts or grievances over time. Gunnysacking may be expressed by bringing up previous behaviors the other has engaged in or previous arguments you felt were unresolved. Bottling up your frustrations only hurts you and can cause your current relationships to suffer. By addressing, or unpacking you can better assess the current situation with the current patterns and variables. We learn from experience but can distinguish between old wounds and current challenges, and try to focus our energies where they will make the most positive impact.

Serial Arguing

Interpersonal conflict may take the form of serial arguing, which is a repeated pattern of disagreement over an issue. Serial arguments do not necessarily indicate negative or troubled relationships, but any kind of patterned conflict is worth paying attention to. There are three patterns that occur with serial arguing: repeating, mutual hostility, and arguing with assurances (Johnson & Roloff, 2000). The first pattern is repeating, which means reminding the other person of your complaint (what you want them to start/stop doing). The pattern may continue if the other person repeats their response to your reminder. For example, if Marita reminds Kate that she doesn’t appreciate her sarcastic tone, and Kate responds, “I’m soooo sorry, I forgot how perfect you are,” then the reminder has failed to effect the desired change. A predictable pattern of complaint like this leads participants to view the conflict as irresolvable. The second pattern within serial arguments is mutual hostility, which occurs when the frustration of repeated conflict leads to negative emotions and increases the likelihood of verbal aggression. Again, a predictable pattern of hostility makes the conflict seem irresolvable and may lead to relationship deterioration.

Whereas the first two patterns entail an increase in pressure on the participants in the conflict, the third pattern offers some relief. If people in an interpersonal conflict offer verbal assurances of their commitment to the relationship, then the problems associated with the other two patterns of serial arguing may be ameliorated. Even though the conflict may not be solved in the interaction, the verbal assurances of commitment imply that there is a willingness to work on solving the conflict in the future, which provides a sense of stability that can benefit the relationship. Although serial arguing is not inherently bad within a relationship, if the pattern becomes more of a vicious cycle, it can lead to alienation, polarization, and an overall toxic climate, and the problem may seem so irresolvable that people feel trapped and terminate the relationship (Christensen & Jacobson, 2000). There are some negative, but common, conflict reactions we can monitor and try to avoid, which may also help prevent serial arguing


Our strong emotions regarding our own beliefs, attitudes, and values can sometimes lead to incivility in our verbal communication. Incivility occurs when a person deviates from established social norms and can take many forms, including insults, bragging, bullying, gossiping, swearing, deception, and defensiveness, among others (Miller, 2001).  In any case, researchers have identified several aspects of language use online that are typically viewed as negative: name-calling, character assassination, and the use of obscene language (Sobieraj & Berry, 2011). What contributes to such uncivil behavior—online and offline? The following are some common individual and situational influences that may lead to breaches of civility (Miller, 2001):

  • Individual differences. Some people differ in their interpretations of civility in various settings, and some people have personality traits that may lead to actions deemed uncivil on a more regular basis.
  • Ignorance. In some cases, especially in novel situations involving uncertainty, people may not know what social norms and expectations are.
  • Lack of skill. Even when we know how to behave, we may not be able to do it. Such frustrations may lead a person to revert to undesirable behavior such as engaging in personal attacks during a conflict because they don’t know what else to do.
  • Lapse of control. Self-control is not an unlimited resource. Even when people know how to behave and have the skill to respond to a situation appropriately, they may not do so. Even people who are careful to monitor their behavior have occasional slipups.
  • Negative intent. Some people, in an attempt to break with conformity or challenge societal norms, or for self-benefit (publicly embarrassing someone in order to look cool or edgy), are openly uncivil.

Hurtful Messages

“Even in the closest, most satisfying relationships, people sometimes say things that hurt each other” (Vangelisti & Crumley, 1998, p. 173)

We have all been in the position of having our feelings hurt or hurting the feelings of another. When feelings are hurt, individuals respond in many different ways. Though hurtful messages have existed since humans began interacting, it was in 1994 that Anita L. Vangelisti (1994) first developed a typology of hurtful messages. Her work resulted in ten types of messages. She furthered her work by exploring reactions to hurtful messages. First, we will discuss her typology of hurtful messages, and then we will address how individuals respond to hurtful messages.

Types of Hurtful Messages


Evaluations are messages that assess value or worth. These messages are a negative assessment of the other individual that result in hurt. One of the coauthors was once riding in a car with a coworker and his wife. He was driving and made an error. She said, “You are the worst driver ever.” The moment was awkward for everyone.


The second type of hurtful message is an accusation. Accusations are an assignment of fault or blame. Any number of topics can be addressed in accusations. A common source of conflict in relationships is money. An example of an accusation that might arise for conflict over money is “You are the reason this family is in constant financial turmoil.”


Directives are the third type of hurtful message, and involve an order or a command. In everyday interaction, examples might include, “leave me alone,” “don’t ever call me again,” or “stay away from me.”

Informative Statements

Informative statements are hurtful messages that reveal unwanted information. A supervisor might reveal the following to an employee: “I only hired you because the owner made me.” Siblings might reveal “I never wanted a younger sister” or “When Mother was dying, she told me I was her favorite.” Friends might say something like, “When you got a job at the same place as me, I felt smothered.” Informative messages reveal information that could easily be kept a secret, but are intended to hurt.

Statement of Desire

A statement of desire expresses an individual’s preference. A romantic partner might state, “the night I met you, I was more interested in your friend and really wanted to go out with him.” A friend might say, “Callie has always been a better friend than you.” A parent/guardian with multiple children might state, “God only gives you one good child.”

Advising Statement

An advising statement calls for a course of action such as “you need to get yourself some help.” One of the coauthors inadvertently communicated an advising statement when a friend was talking about going on so many interviews and not getting hired. The coauthor said, “There are courses that offer interview training. You could take a course in interviewing.” The statement hurt the coauthor’s friend as she was only seeking comfort and not advice that seemingly indicated she had poor interview skills.


A question is another type of hurtful message which, when asked, implies something negative. A very direct hurtful question is, “What is wrong with you?” Another subtler question that might be perceived as hurtful is, “You’ve been at the bank for ten years. Have you been promoted yet?”


Threats are messages that indicate a desire to inflict harm. Harm can be physical or psychological. For example, a romantic partner might say, “if you go out with your friends tonight, I’m going to break up with you.” A direct physical threat is a statement directed toward inflicting bodily harm.


Jokes are another type of hurtful message that involves a prank or witticism. In an organization, a coworker could jokingly comment to a supervisor on the supervisor’s relationship with a subordinate, “I can see who’s really in charge here.” A prank can be hurtful if it results in humiliating or embarrassing the object of the prank. Pranks are sometimes carried too far. Jokes in the form of witticism are often open to interpretation, but hurt may result if the recipient feels that the sender intended to hurt more so than humor. Pranks that embarrass or cause physical harm often create emotional pain for the recipient.


Lies are deceptive speech acts that result in the hurt of the recipient. Lies can range from the mundane such as “I was late for dinner because I was on the phone with my boss.” to “I’m going to San Diego on business.” Lies, when discovered, may result in feelings of being disrespected or betrayal.

Consider this: Communication Freezers

In addition to hurtful messages, we can think about communication that is likely to make the interaction feel “chilly”. Communication freezers put an end to effective communication by making the receiver feel judged or defensive. Typical communication stoppers include criticizing, blaming, ordering, judging, or shaming the other person. Some examples of things to avoid saying include the following:

  • Telling the other person what to do:

“You must…”
“You cannot…”

  • Threatening with “or else” implied:

“You had better…”
“If you don’t…”

  • Making suggestions or telling the other person what they ought to do:

“You should…”
“It’s your responsibility to…”

  • Attempting to educate the other person:

“Let me give you the facts.”
“Experience tells us that…”

  • Judging the other person negatively:

“You’re not thinking straight.”
“You’re wrong.”

  • Giving insincere praise:

“You have so much potential.”
“I know you can do better than this.”

  • Psychoanalyzing the other person:

“You’re jealous.”
“You have problems with authority.”

  • Making light of the other person’s problems by generalizing:

“Things will get better.”
“Behind every cloud is a silver lining.”

  • Asking excessive or inappropriate questions:

“Why did you do that?”
“Who has influenced you?”

  • Making light of the problem by kidding:

“Think about the positive side.”
“You think you’ve got problems!”

Sources: Adapted from information in Tramel, M., & Reynolds, H. (1981). Executive leadership. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall; Saltman, D., & O’Dea, N. Conflict management workshop PowerPoint presentation. Retrieved July 1, 2008, from http://www.nswrdn.com.au/client_images/6806.PDF; Communication stoppers. Retrieved July 1, 2008, from Mental Health Today Web site: http://www.mental-health-today.com/Healing/communicationstop.htm.

Conflict Management Strategies

Defensiveness versus Supportiveness

Jack Gibb discussed defensive and supportive communication interactions as part of his analysis of conflict management. Recall from our previous chapters, defensive communication is characterized by control, evaluation, and judgments, while supportive communication focuses on the points and not personalities. When we feel judged or criticized, our ability to listen can be diminished, and we may only hear the negative message. By choosing to focus on the message instead of the messenger, we keep the discussion supportive and professional.
Face-Detracting and Face-Saving

Communication is not competition. Communication is the sharing of understanding and meaning, but does everyone always share equally? People struggle for control, limit access to resources and information as part of territorial displays, and otherwise use the process of communication to engage in competition. People also use communication for collaboration. Both competition and collaboration can be observed in communication interactions, but there are two concepts central to both: face-detracting and face-saving strategies.

Face-detracting strategies involve messages or statements that take away from the respect, integrity, or credibility of a person. Face-saving strategies protect credibility and separate message from the messenger. For example, you might say that “sales were down this quarter,” without specifically noting who was responsible. Sales were simply down. If, however, you ask, “How does the sales manager explain the decline in sales?” you have specifically connected an individual with the negative news. While we may want to specifically connect tasks and job responsibilities to individuals and departments, in terms of language each strategy has distinct results.

Face-detracting strategies often produce a defensive communication climate, inhibit listening, and allow for little room for collaboration. To save face is to raise the issue while preserving a supportive climate, allowing room in the conversation for constructive discussions and problem-solving. By using a face-saving strategy to shift the emphasis from the individual to the issue, we avoid power struggles and personalities, providing each other space to save face (Donohue & Klot, 1992).

In 1988, intercultural communication research Stella Ting-Toomey developed face-negotiation theory to help explain the importance of face within interpersonal interactions. The basic idea behind face-negotiation theory is that face-saving, conflict, and culture are all intertwined. In the most recent version of her theory, Stella Ting-Toomey outlines seven basic factors of face-negotiation theory:

  1. People in all cultures try to maintain and negotiate face in all communication situations.
  2. The concept of face is especially problematic in emotionally vulnerable situations (such as embarrassment, request, or conflict situations) when the situation identities of the communicators are called into question.
  3. The cultural variability dimensions of individualism-collectivism and small/large power distance shape the orientations, movements, contents, and styles of facework.
  4. Individualism-collectivism shapes members’ preferences for self-oriented facework versus other-oriented facework.
  5. Small/large power distance shapes members’ preferences for horizontal-based facework versus vertical-based facework.
  6. The cultural variability dimensions, in conjunction with individual, relational, and situational factors influence the use of particular facework behaviors in particular cultural scenes.
  7. Intercultural facework competence refers to the optimal integration of knowledge, mindfulness, and communication skills in managing vulnerable identity-based conflict situations appropriately, effectively, and adaptively (Ting-Toomey, 2005).

First and foremost, communication and face are highly intertwined concepts, so when coming to an intercultural encounter, it is important to remember the interrelationship between the two. As far as Ting-Toomey’s theory goes, she takes this idea one step further to understanding how face and communication ultimately enable successful intercultural conflict management. Face-negotiation theory ultimately concerned with three different types of face: self-face (concern for our face), other-face (concern for another person’s face), and mutual-face (concern for both interactants and the relationship) (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998). As you can see from Ting-Toomey’s last assumption in her theory above, individuals who are competent in facework can recognize when facework is necessary and then handle those situations appropriately, effectively, and adaptively. As such, facework should be viewed as a necessary component for understanding any form of interpersonal interaction but is especially important when examining interpersonal interactions that occur between people from differing cultural backgrounds.


Communication involves not only the words we write or speak, but how and when we write or say them. The way we communicate also carries meaning, and empathy for the individual involves attending to this aspect of interaction. Empathetic listening involves listening to both the literal and implied meanings within a message. For example, the implied meaning might involve understanding what has led this person to feel this way. By paying attention to feelings and emotions associated with content and information, we can build relationships and address conflict more constructively. In management, negotiating conflict is a common task and empathy is one strategy to consider when attempting to resolve issues.

Managing your Emotions

Have you ever seen red, or perceived a situation through rage, anger, or frustration? Then you know that you cannot see or think clearly when you are experiencing strong emotions. There will be times in the work environment when emotions run high. Your awareness of them can help you clear your mind and choose to wait until the moment has passed to tackle the challenge.

“Never speak or make a decision in anger” is one common saying that holds true, but not all emotions involve fear, anger, or frustration. A job loss can be a sort of professional death for many, and the sense of loss can be profound. The loss of a colleague to a layoff while retaining your position can bring pain as well as relief, and a sense of survivor’s guilt. Emotions can be contagious in the workplace, and fear of the unknown can influence people to act in irrational ways. The wise business communicator can recognize when emotions are on edge in themselves or others, and choose to wait to communicate, problem-solve, or negotiate until after the moment has passed.

Listen without Interrupting

If you are on the receiving end of an evaluation, start by listening without interruption. Interruptions can be internal and external, and warrant further discussion. If your supervisor starts to discuss a point and you immediately start debating the point in your mind, you are paying attention to yourself and what you think they said or are going to say, and not that which is actually communicated. This gives rise to misunderstandings and will cause you to lose valuable information you need to understand and address the issue at hand.

External interruptions may involve your attempt to get a word in edgewise and may change the course of the conversation. Let them speak while you listen, and if you need to take notes to focus your thoughts, take clear notes of what is said, also noting points to revisit later. External interruptions can also take the form of a telephone ringing, a “text message has arrived” chime, or a coworker dropping by in the middle of the conversation.

As an effective communicator, you know all too well to consider the context and climate of the communication interaction when approaching the delicate subject of evaluations or criticism. Choose a time and place free from interruption. Choose one outside the common space where there may be many observers. Turn off your cell phone. Choose face-to-face communication instead of an impersonal e-mail. By providing a space free of interruption, you are displaying respect for the individual and the information.

Determine the Speaker’s Intent

We have discussed previews as a normal part of the conversation, and in this context, they play an important role. People want to know what is coming and generally dislike surprises, particularly when the context of an evaluation is present. If you are on the receiving end, you may need to ask a clarifying question if it doesn’t count as an interruption. You may also need to take notes and write down questions that come to mind to address when it is your turn to speak. As a manager, be clear and positive in your opening and lead with praise. You can find one point, even if it is only that the employee consistently shows up to work on time, to highlight before transitioning to a performance issue.

Indicate You Are Listening

In mainstream North American culture, eye contact is a signal that you are listening and paying attention to the person speaking. Take notes, nod your head, or lean forward to display interest and listening. Regardless of whether you are the employee receiving the criticism or the supervisor delivering it, displaying listening behavior engenders a positive climate that helps mitigate the challenge of negative news or constructive criticism.


Restate the main points to paraphrase what has been discussed. This verbal display allows for clarification and acknowledges receipt of the message.

If you are the employee, summarize the main points and consider steps you will take to correct the situation. If none come to mind or you are nervous and are having a hard time thinking clearly, state out loud the main point and ask if you can provide solution steps and strategies at a later date. You can request a follow-up meeting if appropriate, or indicate you will respond in writing via e-mail to provide the additional information.

If you are the employer, restate the main points to ensure that the message was received, as not everyone hears everything that is said or discussed the first time it is presented. Stress can impair listening, and paraphrasing the main points can help address this common response.

Learn from Experience

Every communication interaction provides an opportunity for learning if you choose to see it. Sometimes the lessons are situational and may not apply in future contexts. Other times the lessons learned may well serve you across your professional career. Taking notes for yourself to clarify your thoughts, much like a journal, serve to document and help you see the situation more clearly.

Recognize that some aspects of communication are intentional, and may communicate meaning, even if it is hard to understand. Also, know that some aspects of communication are unintentional, and may not imply meaning or design. People make mistakes. They say things they should not have said. Emotions are revealed that are not always rational, and not always associated with the current context. A challenging morning at home can spill over into the work day and someone’s bad mood may have nothing to do with you.

Try to distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot, and always choose professionalism.

STLC Conflict Model

Ruth Anna Abigail and Dudley Cahn (2014) created a very simple model when thinking about how we communicate during conflict. They called the model the STLC Conflict Model because it stands for stop, think, listen, and then communicate.

"Stop, think, listen, communicate."
Figure 10.8. STLC Conflict Model. Image: Interpersonal Communication by Jason S. Wrench; Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter; and Katherine S. Thweatt, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. [Click to enlarge}.


The first thing an individual needs to do when interacting with another person during conflict is to take the time to be present within the conflict itself. Too often, people engaged in a conflict say whatever enters their mind before they’ve really had a chance to process the message and think of the best strategies to use to send that message. Others end up talking past one another during a conflict because they simply are not paying attention to each other and the competing needs within the conflict. Communication problems often occur during conflict because people tend to react to conflict situations when they arise instead of being mindful and present during the conflict itself. For this reason, it’s always important to take a breath during a conflict and first stop.

Sometimes these “time outs” need to be physical. Maybe you need to leave the room and go for a brief walk to calm down, or maybe you just need to get a glass of water. Whatever you need to do, it’s important to take this break. This break takes you out of a “reactive stance into a proactive one” (Cahn & Abigail, 2014, p. 79).


Once you’ve stopped, you now have the ability to really think about what you are communicating. You want to think through the conflict itself. What is the conflict really about? Often people engage in conflicts about superficial items when there are truly much deeper issues that are being avoided. You also want to consider what possible causes led to the conflict and what possible courses of action you think are possible to conclude the conflict. Cahn and Abigail argue that there are four possible outcomes that can occur: do nothing, change yourself, change the other person, or change the situation.

First, you can simply sit back and avoid the conflict. Maybe you’re engaging in a conflict about politics with a family member, and this conflict is actually just going to make everyone mad. For this reason, you opt just to stop the conflict and change topics to avoid making people upset. One of our coauthors was at a funeral when an uncle asked our coauthor about our coauthor’s impression of the current political leader. Our coauthor’s immediate response was, “Do you really want me to answer that question?” Our coauthor knew that everyone else in the room would completely disagree, so our coauthor knew this was probably a can of worms that just didn’t need to be opened.

Second, we can change ourselves. Often, we are at fault and start conflicts. We may not even realize how our behavior caused the conflict until we take a step back and really analyze what is happening. When it comes to being at fault, it’s very important to admit that you’ve done wrong. Nothing is worse (and can stoke a conflict more) than when someone refuses to see their part in the conflict.

Third, we can attempt to change the other person. Let’s face it, changing someone else is easier said than done. Just ask your parents/guardians! All of our parents/guardians have attempted to change our behaviors at one point or another, and changing people is very hard. Even with the powers of punishment and reward, a lot of time change only lasts as long as the punishment or the reward. There’s a risk. As long as people are being punished or rewarded, they will behave in a specific way. If that punishment or reward is ever taken away, the behaviour may also disappear.

Lastly, we can just change the situation. Having a conflict with your roommates? Move out. Having a conflict with your boss? Find a new job. Having a conflict with a professor? Drop the course. Admittedly, changing the situation is not necessarily the first choice people should take when thinking about possibilities, but often it’s the best decision for long-term happiness. In essence, some conflicts will not be settled between people. When these conflicts arise, you can try and change yourself, hope the other person will change (they probably won’t, though), or just get out of it altogether.


The third step in the STLC model is listen. Humans are not always the best listeners. Listening is a skill. Unfortunately, during a conflict situation, this is a skill that is desperately needed and often forgotten. When we feel defensive during a conflict, our listening becomes spotty at best because we start to focus on ourselves and protecting ourselves instead of trying to be empathic and seeing the conflict through the other person’s eyes.

One mistake some people make is to think they’re listening, but in reality, they’re listening for flaws in the other person’s argument. We often use this type of selective listening as a way to devalue the other person’s stance. In essence, we will hear one small flaw with what the other person is saying and then use that flaw to demonstrate that obviously everything else must be wrong as well.

The goal of listening must be to suspend your judgment and really attempt to be present enough to accurately interpret the message being sent by the other person. When we listen in this highly empathic way, we are often able to see things from the other person’s point-of-view, which could help us come to a better-negotiated outcome in the long run.


Lastly, but certainly not least, we communicate with the other person. Notice that Cahn and Abigail put communication as the last part of the STLC model because it’s the hardest one to do effectively during a conflict if the first three are not done correctly. When we communicate during a conflict, we must be hyper-aware of our nonverbal behavior (eye movement, gestures, posture, etc.). Nothing will kill a message faster than when it’s accompanied by bad nonverbal behavior. For example, rolling one’s eyes while another person is speaking is not an effective way to engage in conflict. One of our coauthors used to work with two women who clearly despised one another. They would never openly say something negative about the other person publicly, but in meetings, one would roll her eyes and make these non-word sounds of disagreement. The other one would just smile, slow her speech, and look in the other woman’s direction. Everyone around the conference table knew exactly what was transpiring, yet no words needed to be uttered at all.

During a conflict, it’s important to be assertive and stand up for your ideas without becoming verbally aggressive. Conversely, you have to be open to someone else’s use of assertiveness as well without having to tolerate verbal aggression. We often end up using mediators to help call people on the carpet when they communicate in a fashion that is verbally aggressive or does not further the conflict itself. As Cahn and Abigail (2014) note, “People who are assertive with one another have the greatest chance of achieving mutual satisfaction and growth in their relationship” (p. 83).

Let’s Focus: Mindfulness in Conflict

The STLC Model for Conflict is definitely one that is highly aligned with our discussion of mindful interpersonal relationships within this book. Taylor Rush (2018), a clinical psychologist working for the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Neuro-Restoration, recommends seven considerations for ensuring mindfulness while engaged in conflict:

  1. Set intentions. What do you want to be discussed during this interaction? What do you want to learn from the other person? What do you want to happen as a result of this conversation? Set your intentions early and check-in along to way to keep the conversation on point.
  2. Stay present to the situation. Try to keep assumptions at bay and ask open-ended questions to better understand the other person’s perspective and experiences.
  3. Stay aware of your inner reactions. Disrupt the automatic feedback loop between your body and your thoughts. Acknowledge distressing or judgmental thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. Then check them against the facts of the situation.
  4. Take one good breath before responding. A brief pause can mean all the difference between opting for a thoughtful response or knee-jerk reaction.
  5. Use reflective statements. This is a tried and true strategy for staying present. It allows you to fully concentrate on what the other person is saying (rather than form your rebuttal) and shows the other person you have an interest in what they are actually saying. This will make them more likely to reciprocate!
  6. Remember, it’s not all about you. The ultimate objective is that both parties are heard and find the conversation beneficial. Try to actively take the other person’s perspective and cultivate compassion (even if you fundamentally do not agree with their position). This makes conflict escalation much less likely.
  7. Investigate afterward. What do you feel now that the conversation is over? What was the overall tone of the conversation? Do you feel like you understand the other person’s perspective? Do they understand yours? Will this require further conversation or has the issue been resolved? Asking these questions will help you to hone your practice for the future.

For this activity, we want you to think back to a recent conflict that you had with another person (e.g., coworker, friend, family member, romantic partner, etc.). Answer the following questions:

  1. If you used the STLC Model for Conflict, how effective was it for you? Why?
  2. If you did not use the STLC Model for Conflict, do you think you could have benefited from this approach? Why?
  3. Looking at Rush’s seven strategies for engaging in mindful conflict, did you engage in all of them? If you didn’t engage in them all, which ones did you engage in, and which ones didn’t you engage in? How could engaging in all seven of them helped your conflict management with this person?
  4. If you haven’t already, take a moment to think about the questions posed in #7 of Rush’s list. What can you learn from this conflict that will help prepare you for future conflicts with this person or future conflicts more broadly?

Source: Rush, T. (2018, March 15). Applying mindfulness for better conflict management: Tips to try the next time you’re facing a dispute with a colleague. ConsultQD. https://tinyurl.com/ulq3vn8; paras. 7-13.

Adapted Works

Communication Barriers” in Organizational Behavior by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Cultural and Environmental Factors in Interpersonal Communication“, “The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication“, and “Conflict Relationships”  in Interpersonal Communication by Jason S. Wrench; Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter; and Katherine S. Thweatt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Conflict and Interpersonal Communication” in Communication in the Real World by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


Cahn D. D., & Abigail, R. A. (2014). Managing conflict through communication (5th ed.). Pearson Education.

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