What Do You Expect Out Of Your Team/Coworkers Interview Question 10 Must-Have Communication Skills That Minimize Workplace Conflict!

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10 Must-Have Communication Skills That Minimize Workplace Conflict!

The workplace can certainly be a breeding ground for unwelcome conflict. After many years of dissecting conflict, I’ve found conflict is usually derived from misunderstandings that stem from two aspects of communication: how well we listen and how we communicate to others. Being an effective communicator isn’t a warm and fuzzy concept that has anything to do with “being nice”. It’s a prerequisite for effective leadership. Evidence that we are lacking in communication skills can often be found in the work culture around us.

If you want to make quality decisions about strategic and succession planning, minimizing operation costs, and increasing your competitive advantage, you need quality information. Employees will not give you the information you need if you aren’t a good communicator. Even worse, they’ll be more likely to sabotage your goals and build alliances with their coworkers in an effort to gain the validation that they do not receive from you. I’ve comprised the following list of communication skills that will minimize the chances that you will weave conflict into the relationships around you!

This list is not my opinion about the way things “should be”, but rather what has been at the heart of hundreds of conflicts and misunderstandings I’ve investigated and been charged with resolving. It’s the list that can keep you from being a “jerk”, or at least keep you from being perceived as one!

1. Minimize “judgmental” facial expressions and keep an opened posture when talking with someone.

  • People won’t talk to you if they feel you are judging them before they are finished talking.
  • If you look cynical of what you are hearing, the person speaking may clam up and censor themselves.

2. Don’t respond to what you THINK someone is trying to say before they are finished explaining themselves.

  • Some research shows that the average person listens at only about 25% efficiency. If you respond to what you think someone is saying, the person is apt to think you were spending more time thinking of your response and how to defend your opinion rather than actually listening. This may be seen as evidence that you already have an opinion and you are just eager to express it. In other words, committing this offense shows the person you aren’t listening!
  • Before you respond to what someone is saying, paraphrase back to the person the points you believe that they are trying to relay, so that they can clarify their message.

3. Ask genuine open-ended questions when seeking clarification and maintain a high degree of sincere, non-judgmental curiosity.

  • Don’t ask leading questions which usually begin with a statement of your opinion, and end with a question such as “Right?”.
  • “Why” questions should be avoided when possible since they have the effect of making people feel defensive and decreasing their desire to talk to you.
  • Don’t spend time thinking of how you will respond to the person. Just listen.
  • Actively “listen” by asking questions with the goal of getting more information.
  • People have a sixth sense for “gotcha questions”, which only seek to elicit information that verifies a person’s preconceived notion. This serves more to validate you than to obtain information from the person you are talking to.

4. Be trustworthy and build a reputation for having good character.

  • Maintain confidentiality whenever possible.
  • Don’t overreact to new information! Assess whether or not your response will have a positive impact on the work environment. Responses based on emotions often lead to short-term gain to ones pride, at the expense of longer term workplace relationships.
  • Don’t gossip about others.
  • Don’t give the appearance that you are gossiping about others. Although there may be no ill intent, people grow paranoid and suspicious if you are always communicating with specific employees and not others.
  • Don’t put others down to elevate your own “social standing”.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Despite your intent, this will earn you a reputation for being “phony”.
  • People are suspicious of those who make promises in front of other people, only to abstain from following through at a later time. This will earn you a reputation for being more concerned about “putting on a show” to make others think you have good character, than actually having good character.
  • Apologize when you do something intentionally or unintentionally wrong! (Yes, even unintentionally!) Of course you can’t always take responsibility for how people perceive your intentions, but you certainly can mitigate negative perceptions and earn respect. To think otherwise gives you a license to be a repeat communication offender based on a false premise that you have no control over how others think about you.

5. Don’t give unsolicited opinions or advice!

  • Bite your tongue whenever you feel inclined to give an opinion or advice without being asked to do so.
  • Abstain from starting sentences with, “Well I think… ” or “Well, I have to disagree with you because… “, unless the person explicitly asks for your opinion.
  • People can get insulted if they are given unsolicited advice. Be opened-minded enough to know that the person may be able to come up with an alternative and greater solution if you give them the chance. This will earn you more respect and promote higher quality and innovative work in the long-term.
  • Be aware that sometimes people just want to vent, to be encouraged, and have their perceptions validated.
  • People know you are about to be judgmental when you start a sentence with, “I’m not being judgmental but… !”

6. Practice the art of “saving face”.

  • When people don’t want to admit they’re wrong, they’ll continue a conflict or disagreement to avoid the embarrassment of looking bad.
  • Sometimes it’s better to let another person back down without having to admit they made a mistake. In general, people find it tense to be in the presence of “know it alls” and people who like to argue just to prove they’re right.
  • Assess whether it’s more important for you to “be right” than for the other person to think you are a jerk (even though you may not intend to be)?

7. Give people the benefit of the doubt!

  • We tend to make situational excuses for our own behavior, but blame a person’s character when they present behavior we disagree with.
  • To get a deeper appreciation for what a person is telling you or how they are behaving, look at a person’s behavior in “context” before judging them. Know that there may be aspects of their story that they aren’t sharing with you, causing them to respond a certain way.
  • I’ve seen people get mad at each other because they assumed another person said something insulting, when that was not the intention of the other person. Sometimes, it’s safe to assume the person who insulted you “didn’t mean it”. And then move on!

8. Focus on what the person is saying instead of just the tone they are using or the words they use to speak.

  • People use colorful language to make a point and sometimes say things that they don’t mean to be taken literally.
  • Criticizing a person’s exact “words” or “tone” as the person is speaking will only make them feel defensive and reaffirm that you aren’t listening to them.

9. Don’t assume people will tell you how they really feel about you.

  • People are weary of providing constructive criticism to supervisors who will “evaluate” their work performance.
  • People don’t always have the communication skills to do so and fear they may be “taken the wrong way”.
  • When a supervisor says something an employee disagrees with, the employee is more likely to openly agree in an effort to prevent an argument. This can give a supervisor a false sense of validation.

10. Respond well to constructive criticism.

  • Your history of responding to negative feedback will determine the likelihood that you will receive feedback from those you “lead”.
  • Honest feedback is important for you to know how to improve on your leadership skills. If you are defensive, people won’t give you honest feedback that you need.

Supervisors won’t be able to please everyone all of the time! Luckily, it takes more than one of the above offenses to have a negative impact on a relationship between supervisors and employees. A pattern of poor listening and other communication skills can lead to a toxic work environment. By the time a “conflict” or negative work culture reaches a crescendo, the people involved often don’t know what they are doing to perpetuate it or they feel a sense of “self-righteousness”, grounded in pride, in maintaining their behavior. All is not lost. Trust can be built by ongoing communication that allows for misunderstandings to be corrected immediately. If you are a repeat offender of communication blunders, ask people in your “inner circle” (family, friends, coworkers, etc.) for feedback that will allow you to improve.

Finally, a leader may look at the above list and say, “Hey, this is how I am! I’m opinionated, etc.” They may even have the illusion that they became a leader because of these qualities. I challenge those people to consider that they may have attained leadership status despite these qualities! Good communication skills minimize resentment, conflict and dysfunction in the workplace while fostering a positive culture. Employees will tell you information and insights that will allow you to make quality decisions. Optimize your leadership skills by following the above steps. These communication skills will keep you from acting like a jerk (or being perceived as one)!

*Husman, R. C., Lahiff, J. M., & Penrose, J. M. (1988). Business communication: Strategies and skills. Chicago: Dryden Press.

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