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Conflict Management � Parisian Style (part 2)
Toxic Rhetoric Leads to Poisoned Communication Climate
A leader�s inability to choose an appropriate communication strategy in a conflict situation can have disastrous consequences, as witnessed by the French riots.
Instead of using language that could calm heated attitudes and discourage further violence, Nicolas Sarcozy chose to declare war on the young rioters and challenged them anew by announcing, "I will fight them in the back alleys of the suburbs!� To no big surprise, the rioting teenagers accepted the challenge and increased their attacks on suburbia with Sarcozy�s rhetoric providing the fuel of hatred and desperation.
What lesson can business leaders learn from the French Interior Ministers communication strategy?
All communication, whether intentional or unintentional, is irreversible. We often wish that we could take something back we�ve said, and rephrase or rethink our language. But that is of course impossible. While retractions, apologies and explanations serve as attempts to �smooth things over�, once a damaging or toxic remark has been uttered, it has already hit its target without any chance of being recovered. The impression is created, the message received. Such is the power of words. Hence the value of the old saying, �think before you speak.�
While most of us do not carry the burden of running a country, important communication lessons can be extracted from the leaders that are directly involved in France�s unrest.
Lessons in Conflict
Conflict is a part of life, as it represents a struggle to have one�s needs and goals met. This is instinctive for most humans and whenever we face a barrier in our quest to have our needs met, we have certain options. Submit to the circumstances and suffer silently; speak up, assert ourselves and argue for our position; or take action to change our situation and fight for what we believe in.
The worst strategy in any conflict situation is to insult your opponents, tell them they are wrong and promise to squash them. To try and press a lid onto a boiling pot of water brings about predictable results every time. It�s the same with communication during conflict.
Rather than applying counter-pressure, smart leaders seek to release tension and de-escalate conflict by adopting a collaborative communication style, focusing on facts while diverting the focus from often heightened emotions.
In the case of the French riots, Interior Minister Sarcozy should have immediately addressed the rioting youths by acknowledging their frustrations and letting them know that he understands their pain and struggles.
Further, instead of publicly insulting the protesters and labeling them as �scum�, he could have avoided an increase in rioting, by clearly and demonstratively communicating his commitment to promptly launch an investigation into the deaths of the two immigrant teenagers that sparked the rioting.
A conciliatory next step in his conflict communication could have been to address the need to evaluate housing, unemployment and infrastructure in impoverished suburban neighborhoods throughout the country.
The first and most important step in any conflict situation is to consider and understand where the other side is coming from. That consideration has to be stated as clearly and sincerely as possible. Your opponents, particularly in a potentially explosive situation, have to understand that you are genuinely interested in considering the issues from their perspective. This will aid you tremendously in calming emotions and focusing on resolving conflicting goals when communicating during a crisis.
Our Communication Options in Conflict Situations
Whenever we are faced with a crisis, it is important that we remember that we have options in the way we respond to the situation. Here are some of the more productive strategies you can use in place of the ones that tend to escalate a conflict rather than contribute to resolving it:
� Instead of resorting to personal attacks and insults, focus on making the issues the center of discussion.
� Instead of trying to make your point with emotionally laden rhetoric in an already emotionally heated climate, argue with reason and rational thought, sticking to facts and telling the truth.
� Instead of focusing on winning your argument at any cost, offer ideas on how both sides can collaborate to find solutions to contentious issues.
� Instead of pressuring your opposition, work to persuade them with logic and simple language.
� Instead of pushing the other side into a corner with no way out, give them an opportunity to change their position without losing face.
� Instead of �digging in your heels� when you argue your point of view, leave open the possibility of genuinely considering an alternative, mutually acceptable, solution.
� Instead of thinking and speaking in limitations, adopt an attitude of possibility and collaborative creativity.
� Instead of refusing to listen to your opposition�s arguments, show sincere interest and appreciation for their point of view by active listening and asking clarifying questions.
Mind Your Language
Leaders are always on record. Interior Minister Sarcozy may become painfully aware of this fact, as his counterproductive rhetoric during the riots may come back to haunt him during his effort to replace Jacques Chirac as President of France.
As arrogant leadership rhetoric is an unfortunate but pervasive trait suffered by employees and citizens the world over, it is a universal liability leaders of organizations and countries everywhere must guard against.
Particularly in a conflict situation, people look to leaders for answers. They look for direction, optimism, hope and comfort in the leader�s words. Thus, when a leader contributes to escalating a conflict with careless rhetoric rather than resolve it, his credibility suffers and people�s faith in his leadership may be irreversibly damaged.
To avoid such a fate in my own communication with others, I always think of my dear Mother�s words from childhood:
�Watch your language, young man.�
And I do.
Copyright 2006 Harrison Monarth
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