Managing the communication cycle to build successful relationships and grow through conflict
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
Summary: Adapted from Assessing the viability of team learning with remedial students in a lecture-based Japanese higher education culture (Duncan, 2013), this is a script from a workshop for introducing team communication and conflict approaches for improving student performance in Japanese higher education environments, but is equally effective in any team-based environment. Called the Team Hachi Method, this integration of small group learning models and practices offers a framework that students and faculty can adapt to build dynamic learning systems that engage individuals in mutual growth by approaching group learning as a game, improving student satisfaction through enhanced performance. This document summarizes essential communication practices and conflict approaches for enhancing student performance and satisfaction in collaborative learning environments, and provides a team exercise for developing communication practices to grow through conflict.
- To understand how managing the communication cycle can lead to improved individual and group performance in learning teams
- To understand feedback as a process for generating individual and group growth
- To differentiate between functional and dysfunctional conflict
- To consider how using different communication styles can help us to manage different types of conflict more effectively
Managing the communication cycle to build successful relationships and grow through conflict
Communication is vital for the success of our relationships. Despite this, few understand what communication is and how it works. Understanding the communication process can provide us with the ability to build and maintain successful relationships with others. Also, learning to manage communication processes can provide us with powerful tools for turning conflict with others into mutual growth opportunities.
In this discussion, we will approach two related topics: communication and conflict. First, we will define communication; this will lay the foundation for helping us to manage the communication cycle so that we can build and maintain positive relationships. Next, we will consider how communication can help us to manage the conflicts that usually arise when we work and live with others. We will explore how conflict can have positive and negative impacts on our relationships and performance, and compare different approaches for handling different kinds of conflict. This will help us to uncover strategies for enhancing individual and team performance, and for strengthening relationships.
Organizational psychologists Katz and Kahn (1996) defined communication as the exchange of information and the transmission of meaning (223-24). Successful communication is more than just talking to someone; it involves sending, receiving, and understanding messages (DuBrin, 2000) to create shared meaning with others. In other words, two people have successfully communicated when they understand a message from the perspective of the other.
Organizational psychologists represent communication as a cyclical process that involves sending and receiving messages between people (DuBrin, 2000) [See Image 1]. Understanding how the communication cycle works can help us to develop strategies for improving communication with others.
Image 1: The communication cycle
Understanding the communications cycle
Sender and encoding
Communication starts with a sender and a receiver in a context. The sender formulates ideas into a message intended to draw out a response from the receiver; this is “encoding,” meaning to develop a message in a format that the receiver can recognize and understand. To properly encode a message, the sender might consider the language, background, and culture of the individual who will be receiving the message. Other variables the sender might consider while encoding include the events, the environment, and the method. Methods include written, verbal, and nonverbal communication.
It’s not what you say, but how you say it
At this stage, it becomes essential to understand the role nonverbal communication plays in creating shared meaning. Nonverbal communication is “the transmission of messages through means other than words” (DuBrin, 2000, p. 294). Nonverbal communication conveys the feeling behind a message through posture, facial expressions, appearance, vocal inflections, the distance between the communicators, and the environment.
Research consistently shows that at least half of all meaning in a message is nonverbal (DuBrin, 2000); but, nonverbal communication can carry the entire message. For example, if a boy says to a girl, “I like you” while he smiles, the nonverbal message strengthens the verbal message. However, if the boy scowls while saying, “I like you,” the scowl may overwhelm the meaning of the words, causing the girl to understand that the boy does not like her.
This example helps to dramatize the critical role nonverbal communication plays in helping to establish and maintain relationships: communication is not only what a person says, but is also how the person says it. Sometimes, how a person says something is all that matters.
We also should be careful about misreading non-verbal communication, especially when communicating with people from other cultures. For example, in American culture, smiling and nodding communicates agreement. However, in Japanese culture, nodding and smiling can mean that the individual does not agree or understand, but is being polite so as not to cause embarrassment to others (DuBrin, 2000); this can lead to misunderstanding and conflict if the American interprets smiling and nodding as agreement.
The sender transmits the encoded message through a media channel to the receiver. Common media channels include face-to-face, telephone, letter, email, and the Internet. The channel directly affects the quality of communication.
Researchers Richard Daft and Robert Lengel (1996) found that channels differ in their capacity to convey information. In other words, some channels are more effective than others [See Image 2]. Daft and Lengel found that some channels are “rich” in that they can support multiple cues simultaneously, facilitate rapid feedback, and are very personal. Their research identified the face-to-face channel as the richest because it provides for the maximum amount of information to be transmitted during a communication event. In other words, face-to-face communication provides multiple information cues (words, postures, facial expressions, gestures, intonations), immediate feedback (verbal and non-verbal), and the personal touch.
On the other end of the scale, Daft and Lengel (1996) found that impersonal communication channels to be the least rich. Impersonal communication channels include reports, memos, and emails. The critical message from Daft and Lengel’s model is that choosing the right media channel, or a combination of channels, can enhance communication effectiveness.
Image 2: Information richness of media channels
Adapted from: Daft, R. L., & Lengel, R. H. (1996, May). Organizational information requirements, media richness, and structural design. Managerial science, 554-572.
Receiver and decoding
The receiver is the person to whom the sender sends a message. The receiver reconstructs the message into something that resembles the sender’s original idea, a process called decoding.
The information sent is not necessarily the information received. Different words and symbols can mean different things to different people, especially when people come from different cultures. Communication usually takes place in environments that contain distractions to successful communications. These distractions are “noise” that are barriers to successful communication (Schermerhorn, Hunt, & Osborn, 2007). Noise can take the form of physical and psychological distractions.
Physical barriers. Common sources of physical noise include other conversations, ringing telephones, blasting music, traffic, crying children; anything that distracts from clear transmission and reception of messages. Physical barriers to communication can be reduced by eliminating them or by modifying or changing the environment. Non-verbal and environmental elements can also contribute to noise. For example, the layout of an office, hand gestures, and vocal intonations can add to or detract from successful communication. Being aware of and controlling nonverbal cues can enhance effective communication.
Psychological barriers. Once a message passes through physical barriers, it must filter through the receiver’s perceptions. The receiver will attempt to interpret the message in a manner that is consistent with his or her experience. A person’s field of experience acts as a codebook by which he or she decodes the symbols that compose a message. Since experience is unique to each individual, psychological barriers cause dissonance between the sender’s intention and the receiver’s comprehension. For successful communication, the sender and receiver need to share a common understanding of the symbols the receiver used to encode the message.
Specific psychological barriers to communication include semantics, ambiguity, and defensiveness. Semantics is the meaning of words. Different people may attribute a different meaning to words, which can cause misunderstanding. Ambiguity occurs when the meaning of words are unclear to the receiver. The receiver can also be defensive if the message clashes with their beliefs, values, or self-concept.
The intent of the sender can be different from the understanding of the receiver (Schermerhorn, Hunt, & Osborn, 2007), especially when the sender and receiver have different languages, cultures, and backgrounds. Feedback is vital for helping to close the gap between the intended message and the understood message. The more diverse the people are, the more critical the feedback becomes.
Feedback is the manner and degree to which a receiver responds to a message (Mehrabian & Weiner, 1967). Feedback is an essential step for transitioning from one-way transmission to two-way communication that builds lasting relationships. For example, sending an email is not communication; it is merely sending a message. For communication to occur, the sender must solicit and receive a response. This completes a single communication cycle.
By soliciting and correctly decoding feedback, a sender can understand whether and how the receiver interpreted the message; this allows the sender an opportunity to adjust the message in a way that will better match the receiver’s needs. Soliciting and correctly interpreting feedback is key to enhancing the effectiveness of communication. Unfortunately, people often fail to solicit feedback, or they ignore the feedback that they receive. For example, a man might simply talk at people without being aware of whether the people hear him, let alone understand what he’s saying.
From a systems theory perspective, Bertalanffy (Bertalanffy, 1972) proposed that feedback is essential for generating individual and group growth and performance in human systems. Applied to enhance team effectiveness, team members should be willing to give constructive feedback and welcome feedback from teammates. Similarly, the team should solicit feedback from the environment. Feedback from the environment can include comparing their performance to that of other teams and asking instructors or managers for guidance. Accepting and adequately responding to feedback can be difficult, especially if we take feedback personally. However, considering and responding to feedback will help to facilitate individual and team development, growth, and self-renewal.
Some useful tips on feedback include the following:
- Positively offer feedback, even if it is negative. Positive feedback supports and encourages others. For example, “Improving our writing skills can help us get better jobs.” Negative feedback can be destructive to an individual’s development. For example, “You are a terrible writer; you will never get a job.”
- Avoid negative statements that can make the person defensive. Rather than “You are a rude person, and none of us like you,” try, “What do you think we can do to show more respect for one another?”
- Focus feedback on the behavior, not on the individual. For example, rather than saying, “you are a terrible speaker,” try, “Companies are looking to hire people who are good at speaking in public. What do you think you can do to improve your public speaking ability?”
- Open dialogue for questions.
- Make sure you give feedback to the right person; do not gossip to other team members.
- Avoid “toxic” language, name-calling, and labeling.
To enhance individual and team effectiveness, team members should develop practices that reinforce positive behaviors, serve as catalysts for growth, promote self-reflection on an individual and team level, maintain focus, and ensure the process for goal achievement.
Managing rewarding relationships
Understanding the process of how people send, receive, and understand messages provides a powerful tool for building skills that cultivate positive and productive relationships. The person who is aware of the communication cycle can enhance communication effectiveness by doing the following:
- Fine tune communication to match the unique needs of the situation
- More easily recognize issues that can threaten relationships
- Identify opportunities to strengthen relationships through effective conflict management
- Better anticipate and respond to mutual needs and concerns
- Take a proactive approach to solving problems
In short, by effectively managing the communications cycle, you will be able to develop conversations that can evolve into more lasting and successful relationships.
Using effective communication to manage conflict
Understanding the communication cycle is especially important for helping to deal with the conflict that usually emerges when people work together to accomplish goals. Poor communication, lack of openness, and failure to address the needs of individuals in the group can seriously hinder individual and group performance (Robbins, 2003). Group conflict emerges from many sources, including the following:
- Limited access to the resources necessary to accomplish team goals
- Conflicting values and interests among the team members
- Lazy team members
- Personality conflicts among team members, and
- Power imbalances
How a group handles the conflict will influence group success or failure. Traditional perspectives see conflict as a negative force that must always be discouraged or eliminated. However, organizational theorists and social psychologists are increasingly recognizing that conflict is a natural part of human relationships that can positively contribute to individual and group development. Some behavioral scientists argue that conflict is not only positive, but also that conflict is necessary for a group to perform effectively (Robbins, 2003).
Functional and dysfunctional conflict
Regardless of whether you believe conflict is bad, inevitable, positive, or necessary, it becomes crucial to recognize that groups will inevitably face two different types of conflict: functional conflict and dysfunctional conflict (Robbins, 2003; Jex & Britt, 2014).
Functional conflict is healthy for a group because it supports the goals of the group and improves performance (Jex & Britt, 2014). For example, team members engage in functional conflict when they discuss how to complete tasks and improve processes, use critical thinking to question their decisions and work together to drive necessary changes.
Dysfunctional conflict is unhealthy because it can hinder individual and group performance (Jex & Britt, 2014). Dysfunctional conflict focuses on individuals as the problem, while functional conflict focuses on tasks and processes. Sources of dysfunctional conflict include distorted communication, rumors, gossip, secrets, and intentional acts to disrupt the team. Additional forms of dysfunctional conflict include inappropriate displays of strong emotions, like anger and frustration.
Different styles for different conflicts
Whether a conflict is functional or dysfunctional, effective communication within a team can help to enhance cohesiveness by managing conflict for positive outcomes. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilman (1974, 2001) proposed that individuals who face conflict exhibit behavior along two dimensions: assertiveness and cooperation. Assertiveness means that the individual attempts to satisfy his or her interests. Cooperation means that the individual attempts to satisfy the interests of others. Using the dimensions of assertiveness and cooperation, Thomas and Kilman developed a model that identifies five basic styles for dealing with conflict: Competing, Collaborating, Compromising, Avoiding, and Accommodating [See Image 3]. Understanding these communication styles can help team members to determine the correct communication style specific situations.
Image 3: Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument
Adapted from Thomas, K., & Kilman, R. (1974, 2001). Thomas Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument. Psychologists Press.
The goal of the person practicing the competing style is to win. The underlying psychology of competing is high on assertiveness and low on cooperation. Competing can be appropriate when quick and decisive action is essential, like in emergencies. Competing can also be appropriate in situations when you know that you are right on an issue that is vital to team success. Competing can be exciting for the individual who wants to exercise a personal sense of power. However, competing can alienate others, increases your chances of losing everything, and discourages others from working with you.
Collaborating is appropriate when you are trying to create a situation in which all members can feel like they have won. The collaborator is simultaneously high on assertiveness and cooperation. Collaborating is appropriate when the concerns of all parties are too important to be compromised, so you need to find an integrative solution that considers everyone’s interests. Collaborating can also help participants to learn, to build creative solutions by merging perspectives, and to strengthen commitment through consensus. The benefits of collaboration are that all parties can win, you can maintain and strengthen relationships, and improve the quality of your solutions. A risk of collaborating is that it can alienate everyone while resulting in a solution with which no one is satisfied.
The goal of compromising is to find the middle ground; this involves moderate assertiveness and moderate cooperation. Compromising is appropriate when the goals are important, but not worth the disruption of more assertive methods. Compromise can also help you to achieve temporary settlements to complex issues, help you to arrive at expedient solutions under time pressure, and as a backup when collaborating and competing are unsuccessful. The possible advantages of compromising are that everyone gets something out of the solution; it helps to maintain harmony and can encourage creativity. A critical risk with compromising is that none of the parties may be satisfied so the conflict can resurface later.
The goal of avoiding is to delay or ignore conflict. The psychology of avoiding is simultaneously low on assertiveness and cooperation. Although avoiding conflict usually makes matters worse, avoidance does have some practical applications. For example, avoidance may be appropriate when an issue is trivial or when you face more important problems. Similarly, if you feel that you have no chance of satisfying your concerns, it might be better to avoid the conflict.
Other applications for avoidance include the following: considering if the potential disruption from other styles can outweigh the benefits of resolution; as a temporary measure to let people cool down and regain perspective; when you need to get more information to help you make better decisions; when you feel others can resolve the conflict better than you can. The key benefit of avoiding conflict is that you do not have to put any energy into resolving the conflict. However, avoiding comes with some serious risks.
Perhaps most important is that problems usually get worse; they do not resolve themselves. Avoiding conflict also means that you are losing an opportunity to understand the needs of others and may be missing an ability to understand and deal with your environment.
The goal of accommodating is to yield your interests for others. This approach is low on assertiveness and high on cooperation. Appropriate applications of the accommodating style are as follows:
- You decide that the other positions are more important than yours are;
- You want to minimize loss when you are outmatched or losing;
- You feel that maintaining harmony and stability are especially important.
The potential benefits of accommodating are that you do not cause any problems, others may view you as being supportive, and you can save your energy for other pursuits. However, accommodating as a matter of habit can lower self-esteem, can cause you to lose influence with others, prevent you from making significant contributions to the group, and make others dependent on your cooperation.
Lessons from conflict styles theory
An essential takeaway from conflict styles theory is that no single style is better than the others are; each style has strengths and limitations depending on the situation. Developing awareness of the different styles is a first step toward creating strategies for handling inevitable conflicts in our relationships and teams. By effectively managing conflict, we can energize others and ourselves in mutual growth and performance.
Communication and conflict team exercise
Use the following team exercise to explore, apply, and reinforce the concepts in this discussion.
Adapted from Duncan, B. (2013). Assessing the viability of team learning with remedial students in a lecture-based Japanese higher education culture. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest LLC, Fielding Graduate University.
Bertalanffy, L. V. (1972). The history and status of general system theory. Academy of Management Journal, 15(Dec), 407-425.
Daft, R. L., & Lengel, R. H. (1996, May). Organizational information requirements, media richness, and structural design. Managerial science, 554-572.
DuBrin, A. J. (2000). Applying psychology: Individual and organizational effectiveness. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.
Duncan, B. (2013). Assessing the viability of team learning with remedial students in a lecture-based Japanese higher education culture. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest LLC, Fielding Graduate University. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1352039981
Jex, S. M., & Britt, T. W. (2014). Organizational psychology: A scientist-practitioner approach (3d ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1996). The social psychology of organizations. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Mehrabian, A., & Weiner, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. (A. a.-1. Mehrabian, Ed.) Journey of personality and social psychology(6), 109-114.
Robbins, S. P. (2003). Organizational behavior. New York, NY: Prentic Hall.
Schermerhorn, J. R., Hunt, J. G., & Osborn, R. N. (2007). Organizational Behavior (9th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Thomas, K., & Kilman, R. (1974, 2001). Thomas Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument. Psychologists Press.