OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Communication Improvement

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Social conflicts always involves some misunderstanding. Conflict parties communicate by what they say (or do not) and how they behave toward one another. Even normal interaction involves faulty communication but conflict seems to increase it. The higher the level of conflict, the more costly misunderstanding may be. During the Cold War, miscommunication between US and Soviet leaders could be catastrophic in its consequences. At every stage and level of conflict, clear communication among parties usually works to reduce unwise decisions by and costs for the participants.

Communication Accuracy

Much determines the accuracy of communication among conflict parties. As a conflict emerges, adversaries become more emotional. Anger, fear, hostility, and suspicion all serve to make communicators more likely to send and receive faulty messages from their opponents, even from their supporters. Emotion control would be one way of encouraging accuracy. The context of the communication is also important. The more noise and distraction, the less clear the message. The pace of message exchange would also influence clarity, for example, how long and carefully one considers a message before responding to it. How easily one can respond would affect such consideration. A conflict among physics faculty, for instance, intensified as participants were able to dash off e-mail responses to one another, unrestrained by slower, more direct and more stressful ways of communicating. Finally, a verification capability for conflict parties would tend to increase communication accuracy, checking that messages sent were correctly received.

Sending and Listening Skills

Conflict parties should use a message checker for written communications, somewhat like a computer's spellcheck function. A checker is someone who will ask you what you wish to convey by your intended message and whether it will actually be heard that way by the recipient. This is often done incidentally but building it formally into the communication process would give it the prominence it deserves. Much misunderstanding is created simply by careless and imprecise use of words, the "sounds like but isn't" problem.

The more hostile communication is, the less accurately it may be heard. Hostility produces a defensive reaction by the receiver, who is then less likely to pick up nuances that give a message greater clarity. An important sending skill is knowing how to favor disarming language over arming language. The latter selects more forceful over more moderate words, uses statements rather than questions and when spoken, is usually accompanied by hostile intonations, pauses and other nonverbal messages that convey hostile feeling.

Making points and expressing emotions through "I" messages is a technique that often works to expand an opponent's ability to listen and hear. Such messages locate the conflict outside of the listener, where it can more easily be reframed for cooperative resolution. "I" messages also focus on behavior rather than person as the source of the conflict. Less likely to be felt as personal attacks, they encourage a similar "I" response from the "other."

Often a conflict party is less interested in being clearly understood than in "having their say." If their opponent is similarly motivated, a war of words with little clear communication is probable. However, having one's say is a necessary first step toward mutual disclosure and emotional openness to resolving the conflict. An opponent's disarming listening, though, may be as useful as her disarming language. In fact, how one listens tells the speaker much. The technique of active listening (Hocker and Wilmot 1991, 239) has several functions. First, the listener permits the venting of emotion. The speaker feels heard, tension is released. The listener's body posture and gestures such as head nodding confirm for the speaker the sense of being heard. His feelings are reflected back by the listener( e.g. "It really was important for you that...."). She restates or paraphrases what the speaker has said, again checking with him for accuracy. She then asks clarifying questions for further information. The telling-listening function is extremely important in conflict resolution. This is particularly true where a continuing relationship between the parties is necessary, whether it be divorcing parents or ethnic communities in Bosnia.

Supporting Literature: Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot, Interpersonal Conflict , Dubuque IA: William C. Brown Publishers, 1991; Gregory Tillett, Resolving Conflict , New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Examples of This Approach:

Paul Wehr--Intraorganizational Conflict
This article illustrates how improving communication can improve a conflict situation.

Links to Related Approaches

Active Listening

Dialogic Listening

De-escalatory Language

Links to Related Problems

Failure to Understand an Opponent's Perspective

Misinterpretation of Communication

Misinterpreted Motives

Poor Listening Skills

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu