When Communication Causes Conflict: Understanding Styles

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Conflict is a natural part of life. While many of us do not enjoy it, conflict can be healthy. Innovation expert David Burkus believes that a lack of conflict signals a lack of new ideas or a willingness to improve. When properly managed conflict can push us to higher levels of achievement.

The trick is facilitating healthy versus unhealthy conflict.

In his book, When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization, Howard Guttman teaches us about one common source of conflict – how we communicate. He cites research which shows that individuals naturally possess one of three communication styles – passive, assertive and aggressive. They can be mapped on a continuum as follows:

Communication Conflict 2

When we communicate with people who communicate with the same style as our own we usually do not experience conflict. As a Canadian, I believe that our nation generally has a passive communication style. In contrast, I recently observed a conversation by two Italians which sounded like a mild yelling match (it wasn’t!).

When we encounter people with who do not use our preferred communication style it can be a source of conflict. A former colleague and I used to have regular conflict. As I reflect on our communication styles, I believe that it was often a result of style differences. My style is somewhere between passive and assertive. Her style is aggressive. My communication breakthrough occurred one day when I began to speak loudly, brashly and interrupt her during a meeting. When I adopted her communication style she responded to me in positive ways I did not anticipate.

Adapting to this style was significantly outside of my comfort zone. However, when I understood and adapted, we were able to make progress.Here are three simple steps to help you minimize communication conflict:

  1. Understand your communication style. If you don’t know, ask other people for their input.
  2. Assess the communication style of the person you are conflicting with. Is it different than yours?
  3. Adapt. Develop a strategy for how you can adapt your style to that of the other person.

There are many sources of conflict and this model will not solve every problem you encounter. However, I believe that communication style conflict is one which is not often discussed. As you understand, assess and adapt, you will likely solve a few of those daily headaches caused by unhealthy conflict!


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a professor and consultant in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


David Burkus (2012). Managing Conflict Through Innovation.

Howard Guttman (2003) When Goliaths Clash. Mt. Arlington Business Press.

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