11.3.0: Communication Competence

In this section, we will cover techniques for approaching and responding to conflict, address cultural nuances surrounding conflict approaches, and reflect on some common conflict triggers.


11.3.1: Effective Communication: Approaching and Responding to Conflict and Apologizing

While many tend to think of conflict as negative, it isn’t inherently so, and you can use effective interpersonal communication skills to manage conflict constructively. This could potentially transform a negative situation into something that is positive and cathartic. However, it is important to note that conflict involves more than one person, and that the other person or people in the conflict may not have the knowledge or skills of effective communication. Despite this, having just one person knowledgeable in conflict management skills can help deescalate the situation and better resolve the conflict. Below, we will discuss how to approach a conflict situation and how to effectively apologize in situations where you have wronged another person.


Approaching Conflict:

To effectively approach someone about a conflict, consider the strategies below.

Before approaching someone, be sure to define the problem, your goals, and brainstorm potential solutions that you think will solve the problem. Also, take into consideration how, when, and where you will approach the other person with the problem. Usually it is best to approach someone privately versus in a public location around other people.

Take ownership. 
Recognize that the conflict consists of at least two people. Whether it is a disagreement or hurt feelings, both people play a role in the conflict.

Be assertive, not aggressive.
Being assertive means stating the message in a clear, direct manner while respecting the other person. Aggressiveness entails attacking another’s self-esteem, blaming, expressing hostility, and name-calling. Behaving aggressively is unlikely to yield the results you want.

Start with Facework.
In Chapter 10: Communicate Climate we discussed facework strategies that avoid embarrassing, blaming, and/ ascribing motives to the other. Using these strategies when approaching conflict can help reduce defensiveness in the other person. (As a reminder, some good facework starters include ‘You may not have meant it this way…’ or ‘You may not be aware of this, but…’).

Describe the conflict in terms of Behavior, Consequences, and/or Feelings.
When you approach the other person, be sure to include the behavior(s) involved in the conflict and either the consequences of said behavior or how it makes you feel (or both).

  • Behavior(s):
    Tell the other person what the behavior is and when it occurred. In other words, what did the person specifically do or say and when did this occur? Be sure the description of the behavior is specific, objective, and observable, with no meaning, interpretation, or significance attached. For example: “Your voice raised last night when we were discussing finances…” vs “You were being a jerk last night.” “You didn’t respond to my texts yesterday” vs “You are ignoring me.” Starters include “I noticed recently that…”
  • Consequences:
    Describe the reason(s) you are bothered by the behavior(s) or what happens in your life or someone else’s life as result of the behavior you described. Starters: “This bothers me because…” “What happens when…”
  • Feelings:
    Describe the emotions you are experiencing as a result of the interpretation you attached to the behavior. Be sure to say things like “I feel…” rather than “you make me feel…” or “you hurt my feelings” Starter: “I feel (emotion)…”

Use “I” statements.
As mentioned in previous communication competence sections throughout this book, “I” statements are key in communication. (For example, “I interpret this behavior x to mean”… versus “you are inconsiderate”).

Be sure the other person understands your problem.
Invite them to paraphrase and ask additional questions. Don’t be offended or deterred if they have trouble understanding the problem at first, respond defensively or angrily, try to deflect responsibility, or need some time to respond. Remember, not everyone has learned effective communication skills, and needing time to process the information they are receiving should be expected.

Phrase your preferred solution in a way that focuses on common ground.
Try to identify solutions that meet the goals/needs for both parties. This means utilizing the collaborative approach. Also, avoid framing your solution in a way that makes it seem as if it is the only or even best solution. Instead, solicit potential suggestions from the other.


Responding to Conflict:

When another person approaches you about a conflict, consider the strategies below. 

Listen to what the other has to say.
If you are in situation where another person approaches you with an issue, you can usually help deescalate the situation by listening to what the other person has to say. Sometimes this can be hard, as our immediate reaction may be to deny, or to become defensive or emotional. However, try to listen objectively and demonstrate effective listening skills such as using back-channel cues, asking questions, and paraphrasing to show understanding. When you do this, you are able to gain more information and better understand the other’s perspective and feelings, which will enable you to constructively address the situation

Validate what the other person has to say.
You do not need to agree but you can show that you recognize and understand the other person’s feelings and thoughts about the situation. Doing so can help to neutralize the tension and enables you to then offer your own or a different perspective and work towards identifying solutions via the collaborative approach to conflict.

Take ownership and apologize if necessary.
Sometimes conflict occurs because you have done something that has negatively impacted another person in some way, whether intentional or unintentional. When this happens, it is necessary to offer a sincere apology to alleviate hurt feelings and/or prevent the situation from escalating. In some situations, not apologizing and/or apologizing ineffectively (e.g., “my bad”) can exacerbate the situation. Non-apologies or ineffective apologies can be potentially problematic by escalating a simple mistake or misunderstanding into a full-scale conflict, and can result in long-term feelings of resentment and/or the issue being brought up later on (often again and again).

Ask the other for preferred solutions or engage in problem solving to identify some.
Ask for suggestions and/or work together to brainstorm solutions that might meet both of your needs. Be creative and think outside the box when possible. Evaluate proposed solutions and decide on the necessary actions needed to move forward. Be sure to reflect on how you will keep yourself and the other accountable to implementing solutions.

(Image 1: © Cathy Thorne/www.everydaypeoplecartoons.com; printed with permission for use in Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook (I.C.A.T.))

Whether approaching or responding to a conflict, take ownership and avoid blaming the other.


11.3.2: Contextual Communication: Culture and Conflict

There is no absolute right or wrong way to handle a conflict. A competent communicator assesses contextual nuances and applies or adapts communication tools and skills to fit the dynamic situation. In this section, we will specifically focus on the role of cultural context when approaching conflict situations, as it is important to understand how various groups value, approach, and respond to conflict in interpersonal relationships.

Recent research has called into question some of the assumptions behind the five conflict management styles discussed so far, which were formulated with a Western bias (Oetzel, Garcia, & Ting-Toomey, 2008). For example, the avoiding style of conflict has been cast as a negative option in the U.S., emphasizing it’s focus on the low concern for self and other or as a lose/lose outcome. However, some countries viewed avoiding strategies as demonstrating a concern for the other.

We can better understand some of the cultural differences in conflict management by further examining the concept of face. Our face is the projected self we desire to put into the world, and facework, as discussed in Chapter 10: Communication Climate refers to the communicative strategies we employ to project, maintain, or repair our face or maintain, repair, or challenge another’s face. Cultural factors influence whether we are more concerned with self-face or other-face and which types of conflict management strategies we may use. One key cultural influence on face negotiation is the distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Individualistic cultures like the United States emphasize individual identity over group identity and encourage competition and self-reliance. Collectivistic cultures value in-group identity over individual identity and value conformity to social norms of the in-group (Dsilva & Whyte, 1998).

Individualistic or collectivistic cultural orientations affect how people engage in facework and the conflict management styles they employ. Individualistic cultures tend to favor self-face concerns and collectivistic cultures tend to employ other-face strategies. Someone from an individualistic culture, like the United States, may be more likely to engage in competing as a conflict management strategy if they are directly confronted, which may be an attempt to defend their reputation (self-face concern). Someone in a collectivistic culture, may be more likely to engage in avoiding or accommodating in order not to embarrass or anger the person confronting them (other-face concern) or out of concern that their reaction could reflect negatively on their family or cultural group (other-face concern). While these distinctions are useful for categorizing large-scale cultural patterns, it is important not to essentialize or arbitrarily group countries together, because there are measurable differences within cultures.


11.3.3: Reflective Communication: Conflict Triggers

A key to handling conflict effectively is to notice patterns of conflict in specific relationships and to generally have an idea of what causes you and others to react negatively. Four common triggers for conflict are criticism, demand, cumulative annoyance, and rejection (Christensen & Jacobson, 2000).


We all know from experience that criticism, or comments that evaluate another person’s personality, behavior, appearance, or life choices, may lead to conflict. Comments do not have to be meant as criticism to be perceived as such. If Gary comes home from college for the weekend and his mom says, “Looks like you put on a few pounds,” she may view this as a statement of fact based on observation. Gary, however, may take the comment personally and respond negatively back to his mom, starting a conflict that will last for the rest of his visit. However, in many cases, we can consider alternative ways to phrase things that may be taken less personally, or we may determine that our comment doesn’t need to be spoken at all. A majority of the thoughts we have about another person’s physical appearance, especially when negative, do not need to be verbalized. Ask yourself, “What is my motivation for making this comment?” and “Do I have anything to lose by not making this comment?” If your underlying reasons seem valid, perhaps there is another way to phrase your observation. If Gary’s mom is worried about his eating habits and health, she could wait until they’re eating dinner and ask him how he likes the food choices at school and what he usually eats. Remember the tips from Chapter 10: Communication Climate about criticism that honors interpersonal and face needs.


Demands also frequently trigger conflict, especially if the demand is viewed as unfair or irrelevant. It’s important to note that demands rephrased as questions may still be or be perceived as demands. Tone of voice and context are important factors here. As with criticism, thinking before you speak and before you respond can help manage demands and minimize conflict episodes. If you are doing the demanding, include more information in the exchange to make your demand clearer or more reasonable to the other person. Consider making a request instead, in a way that honors the other person’s interpersonal and face needs. If you are being demanded of, responding calmly and expressing your thoughts and feelings are likely more effective than withdrawing, which may escalate the conflict.

Cumulative Annoyance:

Cumulative annoyance is a building of frustration or anger that occurs over time, eventually resulting in a conflict interaction. For example, your friend shows up late to drive you to class three times in a row. You didn’t say anything the previous times, but on the third time you say, “You’re late again! If you can’t get here on time, I’ll find another way to get to class.” Cumulative annoyance can build up like a pressure cooker, and as it builds up, the intensity of the conflict also builds. Criticism and demands can also play into cumulative annoyance. Probably, we have all let critical or demanding comments slide, but if they continue, it becomes difficult to hold back, and most of us have a breaking point. The problem here is that all the other incidents come back to your mind as you confront the other person, which usually intensifies the conflict. You’ve likely been surprised when someone has blown up at you due to cumulative annoyance or surprised when someone you have blown up at didn’t know there was a problem building. You are more likely to have success with conflict management if you stick to addressing the problematic behavior, without judgment. If you are the subject of someone else’s built up frustration, remember to employ empathy and listening skills.


No one likes the feeling of rejection. Rejection can lead to conflict when one person’s comments or behaviors are perceived as ignoring or invalidating the other person. Vulnerability is a component of any close relationship. When we care about someone, we verbally or nonverbally communicate. We may tell our best friend that we miss them, or plan a home-cooked meal for our partner who is working late. The vulnerability that underlies these actions comes from the possibility that our relational partner will not notice or appreciate them. When someone feels exposed or rejected, they often respond with anger to mask their hurt, which ignites a conflict. Managing feelings of rejection is difficult because it is so personal, but controlling the impulse to assume that your relational partner is rejecting you, and engaging in communication rather than reflexive reaction, can help put things in perspective. If your partner doesn’t get excited about the meal you planned and cooked, it could be because he or she is physically or mentally tired after a long day. Concepts discussed throughout this book, such as empathy, perception checking, listening skills and facework can be useful here.


An apology is an expression of remorse for something you’ve done wrong and serves as a way to repair a relationship after that wrongdoing. A good apology will communicate three things: regret, responsibility, and remedy.[2] Apologizing for a mistake might seem difficult, but it will help us repair and improve our relationships with others. Below are some suggestions for crafting apologies. As you review these, consider how each might be effective because it addresses the interpersonal and face needs we covered in Chapter 10: Communication Climate.

Give up the idea of being “right.” 
Arguing about the details of an experience that involves more than one person is usually frustrating because two people may experience the same situation very differently. An apology needs to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, regardless of whether you think they’re “right” or not.[3] For example, imagine that you went out to the movies without your partner. Your partner felt left out and hurt. Instead of arguing about whether they are “right” to feel this way or whether you were “right” to go out, acknowledge that they felt hurt in your apology.

Use “I”-statements.
When you apologize, don’t push responsibility for the offense off on to the other person. [4] For example, a very common but ineffective way of apologizing is to say something like, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” An apology does not need to apologize for the other person’s feelings. It needs to acknowledge your responsibility, and these types of statements don’t. Rather, they push the responsibility back onto the person who was hurt.[5][6] Instead, keep the focus on you. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings” or “I’m sorry that my actions upset you.”

Accept responsibility and be specific.
Be as specific as possible when you accept responsibility as it is more likely to be meaningful to the other person, because it shows you have paid attention to the situation.[26][27] Saying something like “I’m a terrible person” isn’t attentive to the specific behavior or situation that caused the hurt. Instead state what, specifically, caused the hurt. For example, “I should never have snapped at you for picking me up late.”

State your regret.
Express your empathy toward the other person and acknowledge the other person’s feelings as real and valued.[24] For example, you could begin an apology by saying “I’m sorry I made that choice. Looks like you are really hurt, and that matters to me.”

Avoid justifying your actions and blaming the other person.
It’s natural to want to justify your actions when explaining them to another person. However, presenting justifications will often negate the meaning of an apology, because the other person may perceive the apology as insincere.[7] Justifications may include claims that the person you hurt misunderstood you, such as “you took it the wrong way” or a denial of injury, such as “it wasn’t really that bad.” Also, don’t try to put the blame on the other person. For example, “Well, if you didn’t put the cup on the counter, I wouldn’t have knocked it off.”

Use excuses cautiously.
An apology may express that your offense was not intentional or aimed at harming the person. However, you must be careful that your reasons for your behavior don’t slip into justifying away the harm you did.[8] Examples of excuses might include denying your intent or a denial of volition, such as “I was drunk and didn’t know what I was saying.” Use these types of statements carefully, and make sure that you always acknowledge the hurt you did first before following it with any reasons for your behavior.[9]

Find the right time.
Even if you immediately regret something, an apology may not be effective if it comes in the middle of a highly emotional situation. [15] Waiting until you have collected yourself will help you say what you mean to say and make sure that your apology is meaningful and complete. Just don’t wait too long. Waiting days or weeks to apologize can do damage too.[16] In professional settings, it’s a good idea to make your apology as soon after the mistake as possible. Choose a quiet or private setting for the apology. Also, make sure you have enough time to have a complete conversation. Rushed apologies are often ineffective.[18]

State how you will remedy the situation.
Apologies are likely to be most successful if you offer a suggestion about how you will do things differently in the future, or repair the hurt in some way.[28] For example, “I never should have snapped at you for picking me up late. In the future, I will stop to think more carefully before I say things.”

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