Communication Causes Conflict (Sometimes)

TASA ID: 356



For the past decade, it seems as if whenever there are workplace issues, the mantra answer is, more communication.  But, isn’t there a step before increasing communication?   That step is to examine the present communication.   If that communication is ineffective, do workplaces want more of this?  

Moreover, most people do not think about their communication style or effectiveness.  Research shows that if they do, thirty percent (30%) over estimate their effectiveness.  This human tendency is often called “illusory superiority” or the Lake Wobegon effect (coined by David G. Myers).  Illusory superiority seems to be found primarily in the so called “soft” skills such as communication effectiveness or leadership skills.   Thus, about 30% of professionals believe that are more effective communicators than they are.

There are many characteristics of ineffective communication.  Among them are eight major ones that many folks may not have been aware of.

One: Dichotomization (Bothism) 

This concept is symbolized by the old saying:  There are two sides to every story and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Experience surely indicates that the truth could be anywhere


On CNN Newsroom, Reporter Fredericka Whitfield facilitated a discussion on the sentencing of a University of Colorado, Boulder, student who had been found guilty of rape by a jury.  The probation office recommended no jail time, but the judge sentenced him to two years of work release, jailing and 20 years of probation.  She has two guests:

- Civil Rights Attorney Avery Friedman who argued that this sentencing was racist and should have been more severe.
- Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Herman who argued that this was fair and exceeded the probation recommendation.

Surely, there are many views on this situation - maybe as many as there are commentators.

Often when a workplace problem appears, the manager asserts that both employees are responsible.   This often winds up irritating both. This dichotomization is linked to the concept of False Equivalency: common way for this fallacy to be perpetuated is one shared trait between two subjects is assumed to show equivalence, especially in order of magnitude, when equivalence is not necessarily the logical result. False equivalence is a common result when an anecdotal similarity is pointed out as equal, but the claim of equivalence doesn't bear because the similarity is based on oversimplification or ignorance of additional factors. 

In 2000, Ralph Nader claimed there was no difference between Gore and Bush.

In the 2016 election, Fact Checker claims Trump lies 65% of the time; Clinton, 13%.

Political commentator David Brooks coins a variant of dichotomization, “bothism.”  He asserts that at least the mass media when it approaches politics is afflicted by bothism.   They view two parties as equal demanding equal attention, equal time, equal legitimization, equal credibility even though the two views may be unequal and one may even be without merit.

Two: Target Words

Target words or phrases that tend to irritate the receiver are prevalent in ineffective communication.   Avoid lecturing phrases such as:

- You should.
- You must.
- You have got to.

Most folks receive these phrases as irritating because one is being lectured at. Avoid minimizing phrases such as:

- Nevertheless,
- Besides that,
- More important than that,
- Even more complicated than that...
- Not only that, but….

These phrases are also received as dismissive. Avoid all inclusive phrases and terms such as:

- Everybody
- Nobody
- Never
- Always

Each time these terms are used one can find exceptions.  In fact, research indicates that “never” or “always" usually translates into 20%, not 100%.

I disagree.  How many times at meetings, has this phrase been used?  Linguistically, it is called “behavior labeling,” but this is one situation when it is not useful.  The recipient of this phrase usually becomes angry and ceases to listen.  Instead, it would be so much better, to value the idea presented even if it is disagreeable.  Then maybe moments later, other options can be presented.

Three: Unnecessary Comparisons

The most common would be workers comparing employees, bosses, tasks, or jobs.  Most people react negatively to such comparisons.  Most of the time, they are not persuasive.


In Rio, Olympic Star Michael Phelps compared his joyous feelings in Rio to his, in London.  It probably would have been better for him to simply describe his happy feelings in Rio.


During the Rio Olympics, media sports casters were arguing about whether Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was the greatest athlete ever.   Would not it be easier to simply state that Bolt is a great athlete?

Four: Avoid Hyperboles   

- Was this really the worst comment ever said to you?
- Was this really the worst job?
- I have never seen a colleague behave in this way.
- The last thing I need.  (Is it really or is this an exaggeration?)

Most people pay very little attention to hyperboles but they are splashed through the conversation.   Hyperboles are not persuasive and often irritating.

Watch out for

- Nobody believes that.
- Everybody knows.

The moment that statement is made is the moment you can find someone who disagrees.  Substitute “everybody” for most or some.

Five:   Avoid Vacuous Language

Vacuous or vacant language is akin to target words or hot button phrases.   Vacuous language are phrases or words that add nothing to the conversation and may even be irritating.  Examples of vacant language:

- No one said life would be easy.
- Children don’t come with an instruction manual.
- I don’t have a magic wand.
- No two people agree on all issues.
- This is no panacea.
- Nothing works perfectly.
- There is no magic bullet.
- I am not getting younger.
- Change is hard.
- I can’t predict the future.
- Maybe I have not done everything right.

Examine the above examples and it is clear that they add no value to the conversation.

Six:  Avoid Direct Questions

Direct questions are often confronting and interrogative.   They can provoke anger.

- Did you sign that contract?
- Were you late today?
- Did you complete the project?

Seven: Communication Style-Tailor Yours

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.    

- What is their preferred way to communicate?  F2F, email, telephonic and choose this way to communicate.

- What is their preferred time?   Is it Tuesday, 10AM?  If so, communicate then.

Further, if possible, take a quick communication style questionnaire.  Is your communication style “expressive?”  Are you dealing with someone whose style is “directive?”   If so, flex your communication style to further match theirs.   They will appreciate such, listen better and the communication will be clearer.

Eight: Not Listening

It is estimated that most folks listen at 25% effectiveness rate.  What is yours?  One major reason that people are not listening is that they are planning how they will respond.   Plan ahead and this interjection can be eliminated.


After reading part one, some readers may ask, "Do I have to watch every word that I say?”  In the workplace, the answer is, "yes."   Remember the Emily Dickinson quote?   "Some say a word once said is dead.   I believe it just begins to live that day."

Ohio State University Business Professor Roy Lewicki has accomplished excellent research outlining the characteristics of effective communicators or negotiators.  Among the characteristics are:

Ask more questions.  Effective communicators ask twice as many questions as average communicators.   Moreover, they pay attention to the types of questions.   They ask fewer “direct” questions:   Did you arrive on time?  They ask more open questions:   What time did you arrive?

Summarize more.  Effective communicators summarize twice as much as average communicators.   Research indicates that most people are only listening effectively 25% of the time.  So, summarizing may capture what they have missed.  In addition, research also shows that many terms have from 10-25 meanings.  Summarizing assists one in zeroing in on the exact definitions.

Use behavior labeling.  Effective communicators’ behavior label six times as much as average communicators.   Behavior labeling is saying what one is going to say before it is said.

- Let me ask you a question.
- Let me summarize.

Behavior labeling captures the listener’s attention before you give the substance of the remarks.

Search for common ground.   Effective communicators look for common ground or commonalities three times as much as average communicators.

- So, we are both from Ohio.
- So, we are both interested in the new iPhone app.

So how does one overcome the Illusory Superiority effect?   One finds several trusted friends and checks with them for honest and open feedback.  Then one knows what to correct or improve. Once effective communication has been effectuated, the situation may set the stage for more effective communication.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

About The Author

The author is a self-employed attorney in DC practicing mediation, arbitration and executive coaching.   He graduated from Capital University School of Law and Muskingum University.   For the American Management Association, he teaches employment law, HR, Communication and Conflict.   For 28 years, he has served as a senior adjunct at The George Washington University School of Law.   The author is also a featured writer for DC based The Intowner.


The Behavior of Successful Negotiators, Neil Rackham, Huthwaite Research Group Limited.
Negotiation, Roy Lewicki, The Ohio State University School of Business.

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