Conflict: The Alternative Way to Communicate


Emmy van Deurzen and Claire Arnold Baker (2005) state, “There are human relationships of all different sorts. Relationships can be public or private, friendly or adversarial, supportive or undermining, cooperative or competitive. They can be freely chosen or they can be forced upon us by necessity or circumstances.”

Have you ever noticed your way of communicating while experiencing a conflict? A client whom I shall refer to as Tracey was having a very difficult time at work with her line manager. This is how the dialogue went:

Tracey: “You have given me Sally’s work as she is on maternity leave, but I am not yet finished with my work, and you don’t see how much I am already doing. You expect me to do my work and Sally’s work.”

Line manager: “I hear that you are stressed Tracey but the work needs to get done. Until we hire someone to take Sally’s role there is no one else who can do it.”

Tracey then left the conversation in tears, totally overwhelmed and feeling angry and unheard. What went on here? We have two people needing different things. The line manager needs the work to be done. Tracey needs to feel heard, appreciated and valued. How could this conversation have gone more effectively?

Tracey: “Hi Stewart, can we speak today for a few moments?”

Line manager: “Sure Tracey. I have ten minutes now, why don’t you come in and have a seat?”

Tracey: “Thanks for making some time for me. I am really quite stressed and overwhelmed. I want to do a great job for the company, and am stretched at the maximum right now doing my work and taking on Sally’s.”

Line manager: “I hear that, and you are doing such a great job. What would make it easier for you?”

Tracey: “Can I work from home for the next few days? That would save travel time coming in and out, and I could get more done in that time.”

Line manager: “I think we can accommodate that.”

Can you notice the difference in tone? There is an alternative way of communicating in conflict, and that can be swapping the YOU for the I. In the first dialogue, Tracey was using the ‘you’ word, and attacking her line manger. The line manager may have felt a bit defensive and therefore did not come up with any solutions. In the second example, the tone had changed dramatically where Tracey used the word ‘I’. When we own our feelings and are able to articulate our needs clearly, they are more easily heard by others. Instead of: “You have not….,” try “I see that…..”

An example from home life may be a wife having a conversation with her husband about the garbage.

Wife: “You have not taken the garbage out.”

Husband: “And you have not put the laundry on.”

Do you notice how quickly the husband retorted back an attack? Let’s see the change when the wife uses the word “I” instead of the you “word.”

Wife: “I notice the garbage is still in the kitchen, shall I take it out?”

Husband: ” No it is OK darling; I will take it in a few minutes on my way out.”

Here the husband is responding in a much more kind manner because he is not feeing blamed. Using the word “I” allows people to not feel attacked and therefore not feel the need to defend themselves.