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What to listen out for to solve conflict

Have you ever had a conversation like this?

Child: ‘We never go on far-away holidays’.

You hear: (We are poor, I have failed).

Child may actually mean: ‘I feel awkward when my friends talk about their holidays’.

The resulting conversation is probably going to focus on your perspective rather than on the needs of the child. Most conflict is sparked not by the actual words spoken but how we interpret those words. The message we hear is often not what is said. This is often compounded by the other person not being clear about what they are trying to say.

Customer: ‘I have had to ring four times to get through, you people are incompetent’.

We hear: (I am being attacked) and say ‘Sorry, we are short staffed today’.

Customer means: (Will you help me now, please) but then hears an excuse and says, ‘How you organise yourselves is not my problem’.

Great, so we hear what is not being said and our customer is not clear in expressing what they really mean either. Although reaching a point where wires are crossed can be frustrating and difficult, often the key to unlocking the conflict is located there too. On our Conflict Management Courses we teach people how to listen out for the ‘mood music’ behind the customers’ words or outburst. Putting this another way, if we can refrain from reacting to the customers’ words and anger we have an opportunity to work out the actual meaning (music) behind the words. Instead of attempting to hear the ‘music’ we are often intent on justifying our position; ‘Sorry, we are short staffed today’.

Although the customer may not be making themselves very clear, if we don’t work out what they are actually trying to say, they will turn the music volume up. One possible comment to the customer might be; ‘We are really sorry it has taken you four calls to get through, you have my full attention, and how may I help?’

Another key to unlocking any conflict is to listen out for any emotions the customer is expressing (the key component of ‘mood music’). We were sent a recording of a phone conversation a while back and this is an extract:

(A customer calling the parking ticket office):

Customer: ‘This is so unfair; I only parked for 5 minutes’.

Staff member: ‘The reason you got the ticket was…’

Customer; ‘This is so unfair…’

Staff member: ‘The reason you got the ticket was…’

The customer mentioned the word ‘unfair’ over 20 times during the conversation. The staff member continued talking about the parking ticket. They were both talking about different things; the customer focused on the emotion (unfairness) and the staff member was talking about the parking rules. As the customer was not being ‘heard’ they began to shout and swear at the staff member.

It helps to acknowledge how the customer feels (empathy) but in order to do that we must first ‘hear’ what they are feeling. This is usually very easy to do because the customer will normally tell us what they are feeling (‘this is so unreasonable’).

Communication is about developing understanding and achieving a better connection between two or more people. The more aspects you can listen out for during a difficult conversation the better the opportunity to connect.

Happy connecting!



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