How Rich Is Your Communication In A Conflict?

Two businessmen in conflict Have you ever thought how the different media you use to communicate can give different results? Do you think about the tools you use to communicate with people before selecting which one to use?

Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Constructive conflict leads to better ideas, better teamwork and better productivity all-round. However, conflict can also become destructive quite easily, and the method of communication used by participants can easily contribute to that.

A colleague mentioned to me today that she wanted to go on a conflict resolution course so she could help clients resolve their internal conflicts more effectively. That made me think back to a paper I wrote a few years ago about the features of different communications media, and how they can influence interpersonal conflicts.

Let’s consider a few different forms of communication and how their characteristics come into play.


Timing: Synchronous

Cues: Body language, tone of voice, facial expression

Notes: Face-to-face communication is what’s known as a context "rich" form of communication – the other person receives many more cues than just the words being communicated. It’s also synchronous – the other person receives your communication at the same time you send it.

For these reasons, face-to-face is often the best way to communicate in a conflict as it provides the least risk of being misunderstood.


Timing: Synchronous

Cues: Body language, tone of voice, facial expression

Notes: Video-based communication comes a close second to face-to-face conversations when it comes to communicating in a conflict. You get all of the cues that face-to-face provides; the only thing that’s missing is the physical presence in a room which can be beneficial.


Timing: Synchronous (with the exception of voicemail)

Cues: Tone of voice

Notes: Communication by phone, like face-to-face communication, is (generally) synchronous. Unlike face-to-face conversations, you lose the cues provided by body language and facial expressions when you’re on the phone. This can increase the chance of misunderstandings which can exacerbate conflict, but on the whole phone conversations are a fairly good way to communicate during a conflict.

Instant messenger

Timing: Generally synchronous

Cues: Emoticons

Notes: While IM conversations are generally synchronous, they have little of the richness of face-to-face or telephone conversations. Unless you’re using video chat, you lose all of the visual and tonal cues that those media provide, greatly increasing the likelihood of misunderstandings. You do have the option of using emoticons, but even they can be misinterpreted.


Timing: Asynchronous

Cues: None

Notes: Email, as a communications medium, is quite liable to escalate conflict rather than resolve it. It provides zero clues as to the context behind the words in the message. It’s also asynchronous, meaning that people are more able to let a message sit as they get more worked-up about the content of it over time.

As a conflict resolution medium, email is far from ideal.


Timing: Asynchronous

Cues: None

Notes: Blogs rank right down there with email when it comes to interpersonal conflicts. While they can be powerful tools for communicating during an organizational crisis, blog posts and comments are a sub-optimal solution for resolving conflicts between individuals.

Social networks

Timing: Asynchronous

Cues: None

Notes: Right down there with email and blogs; there are many better ways to resolve conflicts than through social networking tools.


Timing: Asynchronous

Cues: None

Notes: If there’s one medium that’s worse than email for conflict resolution, it’s micro-blogs. In Twitter‘s case, for example, forcing messages into a 140-character limit can force much of the nuance out of messages, exponentially increasing the likelihood of people misunderstanding or misinterpreting them.

Do you overuse email?

When you look at this analysis (albeit of only one aspect of these forms of communication), it’s clear that email really isn’t a good way to communicate when you’re trying to resolve a conflict. Unfortunately, that’s the way a lot of communication is handled nowadays in organizations, leading to conflicts spiralling out of control and becoming destructive.

Sometimes it’s better to walk down the hall or pick up the phone instead of replying to that irritating email. You may find the intended message wasn’t what you thought.

In this light, how do you feel about the way you communicate in a conflict? Do you over-use some of these tools in that kind of situation? What tips would you offer?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.