Communication for effective conflict resolution

Conflict can occur at all levels of interaction during a dental nurse’s day, whether at work with colleagues or an irate patient, among friends or within families.

When conflict happens and communication breaks down, the resulting relationship may be weakened or strengthened, depending on how effectively we communicate during this time.

Conflict can be a critical event in the course of work and in developing and maintaining patient/colleague relationships. Conflict can cause resentment, hostility and can be counterproductive in a clinic. However, if conflict is handled well, it can be productive – leading to a deeper understanding, mutual respect and closeness, and can strengthen bonds between patients and colleagues.

Relationships at work or home can be healthy or unhealthy, regardless of the number of conflicts that have occurred, but rather measured by how these conflicts were resolved and communication is vital to this process.

People tend to shy away from conflict, and the reasons for this are varied. They may feel that they would be unable to control the underlying anger they have if the window to conflict were opened, seeing conflict as an all-or-nothing situation. (They either avoid it altogether or they end up in an all-out fighting mode, regardless of the level of conflict they face.) Others may find it difficult to face conflict because they feel they have inadequate communication skills and worry they would have difficulty in positively asserting their views and feelings. They may never have learned that there are effective, adaptive ways to communicate in the face of conflict.

If you find yourself in a conflicted situation with a patient or colleague, it is important, firstly, to reduce the emotional levels in the given situation so that you and the other person can deal with your differences on a more rational level. This could be accomplished by using the ‘defusing technique’.

Defuse or lose
The defusing technique allows the other person to come armed with their argument that you are to blame for their unhappiness or stress. In addressing the patient’s/ colleague’s anger by agreeing with them, and by finding some truth in their point of view, it becomes difficult for the other person to maintain their anger and the situation begins to defuse.

This is achieved through the simple acknowledgement that we all have different ways of viewing things and that there is some aspect of truth in what the other person is saying. What we are doing is validating the patient’s or colleague’s point of view through effective communication so that we can move forward to a healthier resolution of the conflicting situation. We have not compromised our own basic principles but rather communicated an individual strength and ability to deal with a volatile situation to achieve a positive outcome.

When dealing with conflict try to take responsibility for your own actions and thought process, rather than blaming others, as this will decrease the chance that the patient or colleague will become defensive. This is achieved by communicating using ‘I’ statements and taking responsibility for how you are feeling. For example, you should say ‘I feel really angry that this has happened to me’, rather than ‘You made me feel angry because you have made this happen to me’.

Try to be empathetic towards the patient or colleague. By putting yourself in their position, you see their perspective. Empathy is also an important listening technique that shows the other person that you have listened to what they are saying. It is important to show the other person that you have understood their point of view by repeating what they have said to you in your own words (essentially, paraphrasing).

The next phase of communication is to ask gentle, probing questions about how the other person is feeling or what they may be thinking; this is called exploration. For example, you could ask: ‘Is there anything else that you think/feel about this situation that you want to talk about?’ Provide an opportunity for the patient or colleague to talk fully about what is on their mind in an attempt to avoid any unspoken concerns and to try to get to the heart of the problem.

Keep the lines of communication open, try to find positive things to say about the other person, even if they are angry with you, and show a respectful attitude. For example you might say, ‘I genuinely respect you for having the courage to talk about this problem’ or ‘I admire your strength and your caring attitude in trying to resolve this situation’.

When dealing with conflict and using your communication skills remember to:
• Identify the problem – what is the complaint or concern of the patient or your colleague?
• Possible solutions – brainstorm possible solutions to the problem between you
• Evaluate the possible solutions – which solution to the conflict will achieve the best result not just for one individual but for both parties?
• Decide/implement the best solution – take decisive action to avoid prolonging the situation
• Continue to evaluate the solution – remember that conflict resolution is a work in progress, so check in with the colleague or patient over time to ensure that nothing has been overlooked.

Finally, remember ‘respond, don’t react’ in communicating effectively to avoid conflict.

Reference
Levine S (2009) Getting to resolution: turning conflict to collaboration. Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, San Francisco

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