Communication Strategies in Conflict and Mediation
Alan L. Sillars William W. Wilmot University of Montana
Conflict is an affliction common to all of us, however, the ways that people "struggle" with one another are quite diverse. One married couple might not ever discuss important issues, yet the next will argue incessantly over minutia. Of interest to most students, researchers, and practitioners in the area of dispute resolution is how the process of conflict, with its many idiosyncratic elements, relates to conflict and relationship outcomes. There is a touch of idealism revealed in our belief that appropriate control over the process of communication may lead to more equitable, humane, and satisfying forms of conflict than are often experienced. Still, the relationship between communication and conflict is not straightforward. Sometimes the ostensibly "best" forms of communication lead to the worst consequences and vice versa.
In this chapter, we consider how dispute resolution is shaped by styles and strategies of communication. To narrow the topic slightly we have focused mostly on marital and intimate dyads, although we believe that most of the points raised in this chapter extend to other contexts as well. Our description of communication in conflict entails a logical sequence of steps. First, one must be able to describe what people do when they have conflict; for example, they may lash out, apologize, sulk, laugh, or disclose. Toward this end, we present a descriptive taxonomy of conflict styles and discuss the implications of each style. The taxonomy was developed and refined from repeated observations of interpersonal and marital conflict. Different versions of the taxonomy have been used to analyze conversations of married couples ( Burggraf & Sillars, 1987; Fitzpatrick, Fallis, & Vance, 1982; Pike & Sillars, 1985; Zietlow & Sillars,