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Managing communication breakdown

Managing confrontation is an important part of any relationship.

The bluster around the Brexit negotiation is a reminder that sometimes in relationships, whether personal or professional, you’ve simply got to crack on and work it out.

But how do you manage a relationship when it goes sour? Typically, most of us do it badly.

Human relationships

Relationships between individuals or organisations are based on discourse between human beings.

I’ve writing this article in the first person but it isn’t necessarily personal. It applies to almost any situation.

Organisational relationships are typically easier to address than personal relationships, because they’re based on rules, laws and contracts; and not emotion.

There’s an army of process, legal infrastructure and professionals to help manage organisational conflict.

It’s not always the case of course. There are grey areas where personal and professional frequently mix.

Personal lessons

It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve learnt how to manage conflict through a mix of formal learning, and trial and error.

There wasn’t a conflict class at my school, but I wish that there had been.

It’s a skill that we typically learn by observing the behaviour of our parents, siblings or guardians.

Causes of conflict

Maybe you’re dealing with a colleague that has failed to produce an important piece of work; a supplier that didn’t deliver a product or service; or your spouse failed to empty the dishwasher.

I’m being flippant to make a point.

The first thing is to realise that tension is a normal part of any relationship, whether personal or organisational.

Society and human beings wouldn’t progress if relationships weren’t constantly challenged. It would also be very dull.

You need be aware of your emotional triggers, and critically your reactions.

My response when I don’t get my own way is typically frustration that festers into anger if it’s not addressed. It’s not helpful.

Anger is a lousy way to manage any relationship. But avoiding confrontation isn’t a solution either. Animosity and passive aggression are two sides of the same coin.

Dealing with conflict

My advice is to seek out safe places where issues can be aired. Escalation processes, formal channels of communication, time out and mediation, can all work.

Diplomats and public relations practitioners would recommend starting by listening and using empathy.

As the cliche goes, walk a mile in someone else’sย  shoes before judging them. There’s a good reason that it’s a cliche.

Face-to-face

Finding a way to address a difficult situation face-to-face is powerful.

Your challenge is that not everyone is ready to listen. You’ve then got the additional issue of managing rejection.

Written word

Like in so many areas of life, writing almost always cuts through.

Committing your grievances to paper has two benefits.

First it will help you work through your thoughts, much as I’m doing now. If that’s all you do, then it’s a useful exercise.

Second, if you’re brave enough to send an email, or even better a letter, it will be read.

Mediation

I’ve used counselling and mediation personally and professionally throughout my life.

Neither is an easy option. But as a means of personal development and learning both are incredible powerful.

There’s nothing harsher than a third party calling you or your organisation to account in your work or home relationships.

Accepting breakdown

You need to recognise when someone is raising an issue in a relationship and be ready to listen. You also need to decide whether or not it’s appropriate for you to moderate your behaviour.

Resolving a communication breakdown isn’t a zero sum game. There can be no winner or loser. The solution is either a better relationship, or a broken relationship.

Inevitably some relationships simply breakdown. Sometimes a relationship simply runs its course. Sometimes people are simply idiots. But if that’s the case try and create a good ending, rather than a bad one.

Thanks for listening.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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