Creating a Personal Communication Guideline
By Adam Neff
You arrive on the scene of a two-story house fire with smoke and flames showing; there are reports of people trapped in Division 2. You know what to do because of your training and departmental operating guidelines. There is no hesitation in your actions and you just react to the situation; you successfully do all the things you are supposed to do. A question to ask yourself is, “Why can we run into burning buildings without hesitation, but when dealing with conflict with colleagues or family members, we stumble, avoid, and hesitate with our communication?”
Communication is hard, and the more people we interact with and with all the various forms of communication, there is a greater opportunity to have a breakdown in communication.
Communication breakdown often leads to conflict. Through my experience (a lot of trial and error), I have developed a simple four-step guideline to deal with conflict. This process is just a guideline, similar to a department standard operating guideline when responding to a building fire. Consider this four-step process the next time you are facing conflict with someone you care about. The steps will help you default to the action steps with the interest of saving the relationship with whom you have a conflict.
The simple four-step process should always start with self-reflection. This is the first and, in my opinion, the most important step. Self-reflection is looking within and asking yourself the following questions: What role did I play? Did I not communicate enough? Is my ego creating the roadblock? Is there something else influencing my behavior?
If you see conflict as solely being one-sided, then your ego will be a continual adversary in all your communications. However, if you can see that you somehow contributed to the conflict with your communication presentation, choice of words, or the medium, then you are well on your way to resolving conflict. Those examples are just a few ways that we may have contributed to the conflict. No matter what the issue, the first step always has to be self-reflection and identifying how you contributed to the conflict.
The second step is to seek counsel–from a friend, peer, or mentor–and get another perspective on the issue. Maybe you are making the issue more than it has to be, or maybe you are not giving the situation the attention it deserves. Be mindful of the story you tell. Often when we seek out counsel, we are seeking out support for our version of the story. Our bias influences the story we tell so that those we chose to counsel will side with us. This is a mistake. Nobody wants to be wrong. However, if you value the relationship and you want to repair it than being honest with your counsel and with the story you tell cannot be biased.
Confront the Conflict
The third step is to confront the conflict. Take your self-reflection and the perspective of your counsel to the conflict and with the other person. Having an open and honest conversation about the issue. Ideally, you want to share the process you have done. Tell the other person the role that you played in the conflict and that, with some assistance of a peer or mentor, you did not want to leave the issue unresolved.
One problem that we run into because of our strong personality traits is that we skip the first two steps. The thought is that if we have two adults that have an issue, then they should be able to talk about it as adults. I would agree with the statement, except for the fact that often emotions will mask the truth. When there is a conflict and we have been accused, our reactions are often to be put on the defensive. More than likely, our decisions moving forward will have more to do with emotions and defending ourselves than presenting facts and associated causes of the conflict.
Bonus Step: Informing the Supervisor
If the conflict you are dealing with is in the firehouse and you were able to actualize it, took ownership of your role, and tried to approach the conflict and it blew up in your face, I would suggest this additional step of informing the supervisor. This step is more than telling the supervisor. When you inform the supervisor, you need to communicate the whole situation and the process you have completed up to the point of informing the supervisor. The supervisor has a couple of options as well: to mediate the situation, to give an order to “get along,” or to simply do nothing. No matter the direction the supervisor chooses, he will likely appreciate the effort put into trying to resolve the conflict before being informed. There is a high probability that, depending on the conflict, the supervisor may need to get involved before confronting the conflict.
The final step in the process is acceptance. This can be a difficult step to realize once you get there–the reality that you went through a process of self-reflection and accepted a role in the conflict, sought out a peer or mentor to get another perspective, communicated your role in the situation, and after all that there is no resolution. Then you will have to accept the fact that you cannot make everyone happy. You cannot force anybody to do anything that they do not want to. Just because you accepted a level of responsibility in the conflict does not mean that the other person will accept any responsibility.
Developing your communication guideline or using this four-step process is no guarantee that there is a resolution with every conflict. However, using your guideline to handle conflict will ensure that you learn something from the conflict you do have. In my experience, I rarely get past the first step, and if I am being honest with myself and actualize my role in the conflict, I typically go to step three and confront the conflict with the other person. When you come from a position of fault, the other party lowers his defensive wall and often will actualize his role in the conflict. Generally, the first person to discuss the conflict will set the pace for the conversation.
One example of this is played out between Bob and John. They had an issue about cleaning in the firehouse.
Bob: Hey, John. Can I talk to you about the issue we had last shift (confronting the conflict)?
John: I guess (defensive tone).
Bob: Great, hey, I was thinking about our exchange and I want to apologize because I think I misunderstood, and I would like to talk to you about it (self-reflection and ownership).
John: Okay (surprising/confused tone).
Bob: Yeah, I was in a hurry because my wife was upset with me about not getting the kids to school, and I allowed my attitude in that situation to bleed over to our interaction (took ownership in the actions that contributed to the conflict).
John: Bob, it’s not a big deal, and I probably could have communicated it differently and not read too much into your reaction (actualized his role in the conflict).
Bob: I appreciate that. Sorry for the misunderstanding.
John: Thanks for coming to me.
Whether at the firehouse or at home, communication can be a challenge, and anyone will tell you that past conflicts were related to a communication issue. Rest assured that you are not the only one that is challenged by it. Communication can be tricky, stressful, and difficult, and the number of variables that contribute to that difficulty is limitless. Some of those variables I already mentioned, but consider some additional ones: department culture, environmental stress, economic concerns, emotional distress, and global impacts. The conflict between people can often be directly related to a breakdown in communication. Creating your own “communication guideline” to respond to conflict is a great way to ensure action instead of avoidance.
Adam Neff is assistant chief of training at the Nixa (MO) Fire Protection District. His fire service career started 26 years ago as a cadet volunteer, and he has worked his way up the ranks, serving in the capacity of a firefighter, driver operator, company officer, and battalion chief. He holds a Chief Fire Officer designation from the Center of Public Safety and has a master’s degree in emergency services management.