Focus Area 3: Communications
3. Communication Skills for Conflict Resolution

Success in conflict resolution and problem solving can’t be achieved without good, effective communication. Developing positive communication skills for conflict resolution may seem to take a long time, especially given the fast pace of youth work. But don’t let that discourage you.

Think of the time spent developing these skills as an investment in the future. Working things out before they can fester and escalate is always easier AND less time-consuming in the long run.

Before you delve into key communication skills promoting effective conflict resolution, have a brief look at the six underlying concepts for successful problem-solving:

1. Reduce Mistrust Though Integrity & Transparency

  • Keep track of what you promise to do and do it (e.g., follow up, questions to answer)
  • Provide feedback loops. If you gather information, report what you learn
  • Summarize and give participants the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings

2. Perceived Fairness in Your Response

  • Meaningful opportunity to speak
  • Treated all participants with dignity and respect
  • Received assurance that responder has listened to their story and cared about what was said
  • People prefer voice to mute (Greenberg & Folger, 1983) and are more likely to judge the interaction as fair, even if they do not agree with the outcome

3. Asking and Active Listening

  • Focus
  • Attend
  • Clarify
  • Empathize
  • Summarize

4. To Get (Not Take) Others’ Perspectives

  • “If your belief about the other person’s perspective is mistaken, then carefully considering that person’s perspective will only magnify the mistake’s consequences.” (Nicholas Epley, Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want).

5. Understand Others’ Issues, Positions, and Interests

  • Issues: Topics or items that must be discussed to arrive at an agreement – the agenda or what.
  • Positions: How a negotiator believes the deal or dispute should be resolved – their solution or how.
  • Interests: Needs, wants, or concerns that underlie the solution, often unspoken and/or intangible – the why.

6. Shift from Debate to Dialogue

  • To solve problems
  • To improve relationships


Good listening starts with quality questions. If you ask yes/no (closed) questions, you are likely to get one-word answers. If you ask “why did you …” type questions you are likely to get defensive answers. If you ask “Don’t you think …” type questions, you are not actually asking questions, you’re leading a particular response.

Characteristics of effective questions include:

  • Having more than two answers (e.g., mine and yours)
  • Simple and clear
  • Thought provoking
  • Surfaces assumptions
  • Generates energy
  • Curious and respectful
  • Avoids asking why and creating defensiveness

Here are examples of quality questions that you can use situationally:

Issue Questions

To better understand a situation:

  • What upsets you most about this?
  • What factors are having an impact on your ability to address this?
  • Are there recurring patterns you notice about this?
  • What is your greatest vulnerability regarding this?

Critical Thinking Questions

To explore alternatives and make ethical choices:

  • What would exist that does not exist now?
  • What are potential consequences of making a decision to ...?
  • Where else have you seen this approach work?
  • What if we change the approach so we can focus more on your objectives?
  • What’s really going on here?
  • What other factors might influence what happens next?
  • How comfortable are you with this approach?

Appreciative Questions

To shape future decisions using prior experience:

  • Describe a situation involving a difficult conflict that was successfully resolved-
    • What were the turning points that led to the resolution?
    • How were the barriers to resolution overcome?
    • How did you contribute to the resolution?

Questions Enabling Action

  • What does all this mean for you?
  • Does this make sense to you?
  • How can you start to make this happen?
  • To whom should we communicate this information?
  • How can you get that approved?

Questions Encouraging Self-Reflection

  • What is the preferred behavior?
  • Past example
  • Contribution


Listening is an art; with practice it can be learned and improved. It involves using strategies that will enable you to go beyond passively hearing what is being said. Active listening will help you:

  • Let others know they are being heard and understood
  • Accurately assess the situation as it is
  • Better clarify what is being said
  • Communicate acceptance of feelings without agreeing with or approving of them
  • Reduce emotions that block problem-solving

Remember that gap between the rate people speak and the rate at which people can listen and process information? That gap might be used to think about a response, why the other person is wrong, or even what to have for dinner tonight. It can be a block to listening, but active listening overcomes this block.

Active listening is an important part of conflict resolution communications.

FACES is an easy mnemonic for remembering the skills of active listening:

  • Focus - Posture and eye contact should reflect the fact that you are listening.
  • Attend - Pay attention to the speaker’s words and emotional affect, body language, and other “non-verbals.”
  • Clarify - Paraphrase what you have heard to be sure you have not assumed an erroneous meaning for specific words; use open-ended questions which encourage the other person to elaborate.
  • Empathize - Acknowledge feelings as valid, that each person is entitled to their point of view; ask questions that make everyone seem more real as people; recognize the difficulty of the process.
  • Summarize - Use neutral language to re-state your understanding of the person’s concerns and issues while providing them with an opportunity to confirm or amend the meaning of what they said.
    Shout-out to self-care: SILENCE IS GOLDEN! 
    While we’re on the subject of active listening, this would be a good time to indulge yourself. Give your body, your brain, your heart a break and simply immerse yourself in silence. Unplug – no distractions, no noises, no needs, no anything! Take 5 minutes to yourself. Sit or lie down, in a quiet, comfortable space. Tune out and relax. Really relish the quiet you have created for yourself in this short break. 


    Every aspect of youth work – positive youth development, behavior intervention, conflict resolution, guidance, praise, support -  is certainly dependent on clear, concise, and caring communication. The art of communication is something you cannot take for granted, especially when it comes to difficult, positive, and crucial conversations.

    It’s not in the scope of this module to dig deep into these concepts but you can certainly find plenty of resources to learn more if you’re interested.

    There are many books on communication skills and conflict so it should be easy enough to find those that resonate with you, personally. Two excellent resources you might consider are Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton and Heen) and Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler). The following is a brief summary of the concepts covered in these two books. 


    Each difficult conversation is really three conversations. The three conversations are:

    1. Facts - Disagreement about what has happened or should happen.

    • Who said what?
    • Who did what?
    • Who is right?
    • Who meant what?
    • Who’s to blame?

    2. Feelings - Conscious or unconscious expression of emotion.

    • Are my feelings valid or appropriate?
    • Should I acknowledge or deny them?
    • Should I put them on the table?
    • What if I make the other person feel angry or hurt?

    3. Identity - What the situation means.

    • Am I competent?
    • Am I a good person?
    • Am I worthy of love?


    Characteristics of positive conversations include:

    • Appreciating the complexity of multiple perceptions and intentions.
    • Seeing the reality of joint contributions to the problem.
    • Understanding what has happened from the other person’s view.
    • Seeing the central role of feelings.
    • Sharing your feelings.
    • Inviting the other person to share their feelings.
    • Seeing what the issue means to each other’s self-esteem and identity.


    Components of the crucial conversation model include:

    • Moves from debate to dialogue (the free flow of meaning)
    • Point of the dialogue is to increase the shared pool of meaning
    • Dialogue differs from typical conversation in that a dialogue:
      • Gives up the goal of convincing others and focuses on understanding each other.
      • Comes from the perspective of GETTING rather than TAKING.

    There are signs that show when an individual is willing to have a crucial conversation, such as:

    • Concessions - Retreat from a well laid-out position
    • Symbolic Gestures - Actions signaling a willingness to begin, continue, or accelerate a dispute resolution process
    • Tension-reducing Measures - Statements or actions made to avoid fear, alarm or apprehension that could escalate a conflict
    • Confidence-building Measures - Unilateral actions taken to signal that certain potentially harmful actions will not happen
      Reference Sources

      1 Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. (1999). Difficult conversations: how to discuss what matters most. New York: Penguin. ISBN: 0 14 02.8852X

      2 For more information, see Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler.

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