Conflict-Related Communication Skills
Tom Sebok, University Ombudsman
The skills below are much more effective than common “fight or flight” responses such
Threatening, insulting, interrupting, or talking over others
Avoiding, accommodating, or engaging in “passive-aggressive” behaviors
can help you communicate in a way that is both honest and safe (for you and for
the other person)
are very hard to implement when you are very angry, scared, or hurt BUT
give you the best chance of understanding one another, being heard, reaching a
mutually agreeable solution, and/or avoiding making things worse!
SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING OTHER PEOPLE’S CONCERNS…
Active Listening is a two-part process: 1) hearing what the other is saying and 2)
demonstrating to her/him that s/he has been heard. Active Listening can be used to:
help our understanding of the other person’s point of view and/or
de-escalate intense emotions
Three skills effectively demonstrate Active Listening:
Attending skills are behaviors that convey to another person that you are listening
and following what s/he is saying, as well as that you are open to hearing and
sincerely want to understand. Such behaviors include: making direct but relaxed
eye contact; reinforcing the eye contact by focusing your body toward the person
talking and, if you are seated, leaning slightly toward him/her; nodding or using
other subtle nonverbal communications; and occasionally saying a word or
making a sound that assures the other you are following, such as "uh huh"
Note: Avoid other nonverbal behaviors that might undermine the above message,
such as crossing your arms, furrowing your brow, etc., which the other could
interpret as judgment. (Note: nonverbal communication can vary across cultures--
appropriateness and length of eye contact, distance between you and the other
person, for example).
Paraphrasing is simply saying back to the speaker in your own words what you
heard her/him say right after s/he says it.
Paraphrasing serves two important functions:
It highlights what you do and do not understand – immediately.
It is one of the best ways of demonstrating to the other person that you
have heard and understood them.
The following are a few possible ways to start a sentence to demonstrate you are
“So, you’re saying that…”
“If I understand you correctly…”
“What concerns you most…”
“It sounds as if . . . “
“So, from your point of view . . . “
“It sounds like you feel . . . “
“So, it seems to you that . . . “
“As you see it . . . “
(Thanks to Francine Montemurro, of the Boston University Office for the above examples.)
Whereas paraphrasing restates what someone has just finished saying,
summarizing refers to a condensed restatement of what the person has said over a
longer time period.
Paraphrasing allows the speaker to tell all or part of a story before you attempt to
convey your understanding.
“If I understand what you’re saying, it bothers you when I come in late,
make noise, and wake you up.” Do I have it right?”
“So, what you’re saying is you’d like your friends to feel more welcome
“Let me make sure I understand how you see this. You don’t mind if I
borrow your clothes as long as I ask you first. Is that it?”
“So, after midnight you’d prefer if I didn’t talk on the phone inside the
Potential Banana Peels:
Instead of using Active Listening many people:
react defensively (“You’re the one being unfair here!”)
debate (“You’re wrong!”)
blame the other person for misunderstanding them (“You’re jumping to
make judgments – even privately - about what the person is saying (e.g.,
“What a jerk!”)
think of their response while the other person is speaking (“I’m going to
tell him x, y, and z just as soon as he shuts up . . .”)
interrupt while the other person is talking (“Now just a minute!”)
Open questions can also demonstrate listening. They are those that cannot be
answered in a yes/no or finite manner. Although Closed Questions can often be
useful to get quick clarifying information, Open Questions often yield a lot more
useful information. They encourage the speaker to elaborate on her/his concerns,
thoughts, feelings, perceptions, etc. and to provide information s/he feels is most
Open-ended questions often begin with how or what – and sometimes why
How do you see it?
Tell me what you’re thinking?
What would you like to see happen?
Potential Banana Peels:
Open-Ended Questions can be misused in an accusatory manner – especially
when combined with angry or accusatory non-verbal communication. For
example, “What the hell are you people doing over there?” While, technically, an
Open-Ended Question, this is accusatory in tone and form. It’s likely to
undermine the value of an Open-Ended Question and lead to defensiveness.
Similarly, “What do you mean” could easily be said – especially if the word
“mean” is emphasized – in a way the elicits a defensive reaction.
Practice Exercise: Active Listening and Open-Ended Questions
Find a partner. One Speaker and one Listener for three minutes. Then switch
roles for three more minutes.
Speaker: Tell your partner about any of the following: 1) something you really
dislike doing or 2) a place you have visited that you really disliked. Explain as
much as you can about why you feel the way you do for three minutes.
Listener: In response to what the Speaker tells you, just practice the skills of
Active Listening and/or Open-Ended Questions. Don’t give advice, agree,
disagree, or tell a story of your own.
SKILLS FOR RAISING YOUR CONCERNS
SO YOU CAN BE HEARD…
Facts – Impact – Requests (a three-part method)
When you are planning to talk to one or more roommates about a problem, it helps to
have some structure. One three-part method you may find helpful involves presenting
facts, impact, and requests.
No feelings, judgments, or opinions. Ideally, a fact is something that could be recorded by camera
or audio tape without any interpretation or judgment. If you were watching the scene on TV, how
would you report what was said and done? This provides specific details. For example, “Last
night you came home at 3 AM, made noise when closing the door, and turned on the lights.”
Here, you can let the person know how what s/he did or did not do affected you (e.g., “It woke
me up and I couldn’t go back to sleep”).
Ask for specific remedies, if appropriate, and tell the person what you request for the future. For
example: “I’d like us to agree on specific times for “lights out” in our room.”
Practice Exercise: Three-Part Method:
Just before returning to school for the semester you ran into someone you briefly dated in
high school. S/he has been texting, emailing, and leaving you voice mail (you stopped
answering her/his calls). Although you wouldn’t have minded an occasional email from
her/him you have no interest in ever dating her/him again. You wonder if you were too
nice and that gave her/him false hopes about your dating again. Increasingly all these
calls and messages have given you the creeps because s/he seems more and more upset
that you haven’t been returning calls, messages, and emails. In the space below draft the
key points of a letter you might – or might not – send to her/him using the three-part
method described above.
“I Statements” include the word “I” (usually at or near the beginning) and describe your
own feelings, perspective, or concerns (but NOT your judgment).
“I Statements” often help you to avoid eliciting the defensiveness a “you” statement is
almost guaranteed to elicit.
Examples of “You Statements” Examples of “I Statements”
(Potential Banana Peels) (Usually a more effective choice)
“You think everything is about race.” “I don’t understand what leads you to think
this is about race.”
“You don’t understand the assignment!” “Let’s review the instructions for the
“You are just too sensitive!” “I’d like to understand how what I said
Banana Peel: Watch out for “You Statements” disguised as “I Statements.” For
example, “I think you are a liar” is NOT an “I Statement” even though it starts with the
word “I.” It is a negative judgment and, because it is, it is almost guaranteed to elicit
defensiveness – even from actual liars!
“I am confused about why the project isn’t completed yet.”
“I am not sure we have the same understanding of the Sexual Harassment
“I believe we remember what happened differently.”
Practice Exercise: I Statements:
Your roommate plays music even when you’re trying to study. This has been
bothering you so you’ve just asked if “now is a good time to talk” and s/he said,
“Sure.” Work with a partner to come up with an “I Statement” (NOT a “You
Statement”) you could use in the conversation and write it in the space below.
Describe the Gap
The authors of Crucial Confrontations (Patterson, et al) suggest that when others break
promises, act badly, or violate your expectations, it is often useful to describe the gap
between what was expected or agreed to and what happened (or didn’t). Doing this consists
of three parts (plus listening):
a. starting with the facts about what was agreed to or expected (see above);
b. describing what actually happened or didn’t; and
c. asking an open-ended question (e.g., “what happened” or “can we talk about
Example: We agreed that if any problems arose that might prevent us from paying our rent
by the 1st of the month, we would communicate with one another. It’s now the 4th of the
month and I haven’t heard from you. What happened?
Sometimes – if you’re in crisis situation because of someone’s failure to keep a promise,
etc., finding out the answer to “what happened” is less crucial than solving the immediate
problem. So, that may not be a very helpful time to use this skill. But it is a MUCH
more constructive approach than calling the other person names or saying things like,
“What’s wrong with you?” or “You never…” or “You always…” or “biting the other
person’s head off!”
Asking “what happened” is not intended to suggest that any explanation (or excuse)
whatsoever will be acceptable to you. It is a genuine recognition that something might
have prevented another person from keeping his/her word or acting appropriately. But if
the answer provided is “I didn’t feel like it” it’s unlikely you will find that acceptable.
Practice Exercise: Describe the Gap:
Your roommate agreed to pick you up at 5:30 PM so you’d be able to go home and eat
and get to an important meeting that starts at 6:45 PM. You’ve been waiting for over an
hour. You tried calling and texting her/him but got no answer. It’s now 6:35 PM.
You’re nowhere near any bus stop and it’s too far to walk. You had almost given up
when s/he arrived. Use the three part skill of “Describe the Gap” to discuss this with
Suggested Ground Rules for Talking About Problems or Concerns
1. Talk only when both of you agree it’s a good time to talk.
2. No interrupting.
3. Restate or paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you understand.
4. Be accountable for opinions and feelings using “I” statements (e.g., “I really
get angry when wet towels are left on the floor.”).
5. No attacking the other person with “you” statements (e.g., “You never clean
up your messes.”).
6. No yelling, swearing, or name-calling.
7. No complaining without making at least one suggestion for how to do things
8. Don’t walk out in the middle of a discussion unless you first call a time-out
because things are getting too heated – and come back to the discussion when
you are calmer.
Tips for Roommate Communication
1. Choose your battles. Let minor things go but always talk about violations of your
safety, privacy, your personal rights or space.
2. Discuss any conflicts only with your roommate or RA – not with other residents
(who may tell others).
3. Talk privately at a time that works for both/all of you.
4. Agree not to interrupt one another.
5. Take turns talking about your concerns or views.
6. Try your best to remain respectful – no yelling, swearing, or name-calling! (Note:
Although you may feel entitled to speak disrespectfully if you feel disrespected by
her/him, don’t do it! This will only make resolving the issue harder!)
7. Take a “time-out” if you need to but don’t just walk away – agree to return and
finish the conversation.
8. Ask for help if you need it. Speak with your RA or contact the Ombuds Office
(contact information is below).
NOTE: Using these skills and tips gives you the best chance of having a productive
discussion because they minimize the likelihood your roommate will react defensively.
Fee, Susan 2005. My Roommate is Driving Me Crazy, Avon: Adams Media.
Patterson, Kerry, Grenny, Joseph, McMillan, Ron, Switzler, Al: Crucial Confrontations: Tools for
resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behavior, New York, McGraw Hill,
Patterson, Kerry, Grenny, Joseph, McMillan, Ron, Switzler, Al: Crucial Conversations: Tools for
talking when stakes are high, New York, McGraw Hill, 2002.
Rowe, Mary, “Drafting-and perhaps sending-a private letter to a person who has harassed
or offended you,” UCOA Handbook, 2000. Full text available at:
Center for Community, N440