Chapter 1 – Introduction to Communication and Communication Theory in Nursing

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is about finding a reasonable solution to varying perspectives. This may involve you and the other person(s) sharing your perspective to enhance understanding of the issue. It may result in you or the other person shifting your perspective in a way that a reasonable solution is arrived upon related to the conflict. Often, when conversation goes beyond the disagreement on the surface and instead explores the perceived or actual threat on each side, more options for compromise and resolving the conflict emerge.

Professionalism should always guide how you approach and manage conflict. In educational institutions and in nursing, professionalism is essential. As a student, specifically a nursing student, you are developing your professional self as a nurse. This means that you have a responsibility to uphold values of honesty, respect, and integrity in all your interactions.

Engaging in effective conflict resolution takes practice. Remember, as nursing student, you are learning and growing in so many ways. As such, engaging in reflection on how you participate in conflict resolution in terms of what was effective and what was not effective is important to your professional development.

Fortunately, conflict resolution is a skill that you can learn, and that is a good thing. There are several conflict resolution strategies that can inform your communication:

  • Approach the situation with a “spirit of inquiry” (Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, 2007, p. 26).
    • You should enter the discussion with an open mind and strive to understand the other person’s perspective.
    • Reflect on what the perceived or actual threat is for you, and seek to understand what the other person(s)’ perceived or actual threat is. This may be a very different conversation from the issue that started the conflict.
  • Assume the goodwill of another person.
    • This means avoid entering a situation with a negative attitude. It is best to assume the other person’s willingness to engage in kind and professional discussions. However, do note that assuming goodwill does not mean that the other person will end up agreeing with your perspective or behave in that manner. It may be that after a full discussion, you agree to disagree.
  • Use “I” statements when you engage in conflict resolution.
    • These statements are important because they convey how you feel (from your standpoint) and open the opportunity for discussion. “I” statements are difficult to counter-argue because they are your perspective on the situation, as opposed to “you” statements which insinuate knowing the other person’s position without understanding and can lead to accusations and feelings of blame.
  • Do not raise your voice.
    • Raising your voice is not helpful to resolve a conflict, it escalates the situation and makes people defensive. There is a famous quote by Desmond Tutu, who says “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
    • In email, avoid capital letters, bolding and exclamation marks as it can be interpreted as shouting or anger. Also, never write anything in an email that you would not directly say to a person.
  • Be clear and provide rationale for your perspective.
    • This strategy can help the other person understand your perspective.

Points of Consideration

Courage and conflict

Addressing conflict sometimes takes courage. You may feel uncertain about how to address it and frightened that it will affect your relationship with the other person(s). There may be power dynamics involved. For example, you may need to address an issue with a person in a position of authority, such as a professor. Be courageous and act despite the fear, vulnerability, and uncertainty you may feel. It is better to be direct with the person you have a conflict with than to harbour resentment. Recognize this fear, vulnerability, and uncertainty. But also recognize the positive feelings associated with being courageous. You accomplish something important when you deal with conflict. You get courageous by being courageous.

One strategy to help you address the conflict is to write it down on a piece of paper and say it out loud. This can help you identify and acknowledge emotions attached to the conflict. Then when you address the conflict with the individual, you can focus on the issue and not the personal emotions which could impact the discussion.

Case Example

Consider a situation in which a family is upset about the nursing care their loved one is receiving, and tells you that after watching you do an assessment on the client, you “clearly don’t know what you’re doing.”

Analysis

The family member’s words could cause a sense of threat for you. Perhaps you may fear a sense of being falsely accused and reported and are unsure of the consequences that might ensue. You may get very defensive and insist that you did “nothing wrong.” On the other hand, this family may be feeling a very different threat, i.e., perhaps they fear their loved one’s condition is deteriorating, and they may lose them soon. Any small error (or perceived error) in their loved one’s care may trigger fear around losing them. Having a conversation with the family to acknowledge the threat (i.e., fear) they are experiencing may be beneficial to resolving the conflict over their perception of your care.

License

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Introduction to Communication in Nursing by Edited by Jennifer Lapum; Oona St-Amant; Michelle Hughes; and Joy Garmaise-Yee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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