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 Skills Improvement

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Although all people communicate all the time, most have difficulty communicating effectively in conflict situations. Practicing communication skills can have a very beneficial effect on conflict management and resolution processes.

Roger Fisher and William Ury list four skills that can be learned which will improve communication in conflict situations. The first is active listening. The goal of active listening, they say, is to understand you opponent as well as you understand yourself. Pay close attention to what the other side is saying. Ask the opponent to clarify or repeat anything that is unclear or seems unreasonable (maybe it isn’t, but you are interpreting it wrong). Attempt to repeat their case, as they have presented it, back to them. This shows that you are listening (which suggests that you care what they have to say) and that you understand what they have said. It does not indicate that you agree with what they said–nor do you have to. You just need to indicate that you do understand them.

Fisher and Ury’s second rule is to speak directly to your opponent. This is not considered appropriate in some cultures, but when permitted, it helps to increase understanding. Avoid being distracted by outside parties or other things going on in the same room. Focus on what you have to say, and on saying it in a way that your opponent can understand.

Their third rule is to speak about yourself, not about your opponent. Describe your own feelings and perceptions, rather than focusing on your opponent’s motives, misdeeds, or failing. By saying, "I felt let down," rather than "You broke your promise," you will convey the same information. But you will do so in a way that does not provoke a defensive or hostile reaction from your opponent. (This is often referred to as using "I-statements" or "I-messages," rather than "you messages." You messages suggest blame, and encourage the recipient to deny wrong-doing or blame back. I messages simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it. This makes it easier for the other side to help solve the problem, without having to admit they were wrong.

Fisher and Ury’s fourth rule is "speak for a purpose." Too much communication can be counter-productive, they warn. Before you make a significant statement, pause and consider what you want to communicate, why you want to communicate that, and how you can do it in the clearest possible way.

A number of other rules might be added to these. One is to avoid inflammatory language as much as possible when dealing with people on the other side. Inflammatory language just increases hostility and defensiveness–it seldom convinces people the speaker is right. (Actually, it usually does just the opposite.) Although inflammatory remarks can arouse people’s interest in a conflict and generate support for one’s own side, that often comes with the cost of general conflict escalation. To the extent that one can make one’s point effectively without inflammatory statements, the better.

Likewise, all opponents should be treated with respect. It doesn’t help a conflict situation to treat people disrespectfully–it just makes them angry and less likely to do what you want. No matter what one thinks of another person, if they are treated with respect and dignity–even if you think they do not deserve it–communication will be much more successful, and the conflict will be more easily managed or resolved. This means that personal attacks and insults should be avoided, as should verbal or nonverbal clues that one is disdainful of the other side.


Examples of Communication Skills Improvement Strategies

John Amodeo and Kris Wentworth -- Self-Revealing Communication: A Vital Bridge Between Two Worlds
This is one approach to improving communication skills which can lead to greater understanding between opposing groups.
William Gudykunst and Young Yun Kim -- Communicating With Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication
This is an approach to intercultural communication which can help avoid some of the pitfalls of that situation.
Tom Sebok - Lessons from Mediation: An Examination of disputant Behaviors During Mediation and Their Possible Application to Seemingly Intractable Conflicts
In this paper Sebok reflects on years of mediating interpersonal disputes. He lists a variety of things disputants do and say that tend to block agreement, and things that they do or say that contributes to an agreement. While he acknowledges that intractable conflicts are more challenging that the typical kinds of disputes he deals with in the ombuds office, he suggests that similar kinds of problems can make intractable conflicts worse, and similar solutions might make them more constructive.

Links to Outside Examples of Ways to Improve Communication

Graphic Facilitation Focuses a Group's Thoughts, by Geoff Ball


Links to Related Approaches

Treating Communication Problems


Links to Related Problems

Communication Problems

Escalation Problems

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