Poor Communication is Not the Source of Most Conflicts



“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Knowing the source of conflict is one of the first steps to dealing with it effectively.

It’s easy to blame communication as the source of conflict, but it’s not always the case.

In fact, it usually isn’t.

Poor Communication Isn’t the Source of Most Conflicts

For example, communication is the source of conflict when styles get in the way, or there are misunderstandings about intent.  Communication is not the source of conflict when it’s things like how your group is structured, personality clashes, or conflict in values.  You need to look beyond the simple catch all of “poor communication.”

In the book, The Truth About Managing People…And Nothing But the Truth, author Stephen P. Robbins writes about analyzing sources of conflict.

When Managing Conflict, Look at the Source

Rather than just blame poor communication, look for other potential sources of conflict.

Via The Truth About Managing People…And Nothing But the Truth:

“So when you’re trying to manage conflicts, take a thoughtful look at their source.  It’s more likely that the conflict is coming from work-imposed requirements, dissimilar values, or personality differences than it is from poor communication.  And that might influence the actions you take to resolve the conflict.

What’s worked for you in dealing effectively with conflict?”

1.  Structural Relationships Can Create Conflict

Diverse goals within and across groups can create conflict.

Via The Truth About Managing People…And Nothing But the Truth:

“Organizations create job descriptions, specialized work groups, jurisdictional borders, and authority relationships – all with the intent to facilitate coordination. 

But in so doing, they separate people and create the potential for conflicts. 

For instance, departments within organizations have diverse goals. … When groups within an organization seek diverse ends, some of which are inherently at odds, there is increased potential for conflict.”

2.  Personality Clashes Can Create Conflict

Some personalities just don’t get along.

Via The Truth About Managing People…And Nothing But the Truth:

“Did you ever meet individuals to whom you took an immediate disliking? 

Most of the opinions you disagreed with. 

Even insignificant characteristics – the way they cocked their head when they talked or smirked when they smiled – annoyed you.  We’ve all met people like that. 

And many of us have to work with people like this; people whose values or personality clash with our own.”

3. Differences in Values Can Create Conflict

Conflict in values is a common source of interpersonal conflicts.

Via The Truth About Managing People…And Nothing But the Truth:

“So, not surprisingly employees differ on the on the importance they place on general values such as honesty, responsibility, equality and ambition.  They also differ on job-related values such as the importance of family over work or freedom versus authority.  These differences often surface in work-related interactions and create significant interpersonal conflicts.”

4. Too Much Communication Can Create Conflict Too

It’s called over-communicating for a reason.

Via The Truth About Managing People…And Nothing But the Truth:

“The evidence actually demonstrates that the potential for conflict increases when there is too much communication as well as when there’s too little. 

Apparently, an increase in communication is functional up to a point, whereupon it’s possible to over-communicate. 

Too much information as well as too little can lay the foundation for conflict.”

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

    • Communication is not the real cause of most conflicts.  More conflicts tend to come from structural relationships and personal differences.
    • Structural relationships can create conflict.  When groups have competing goals, that’s a setup for conflict.  When people face scarcity of resources, turf wars happen.  Reporting structures can shift ownership, influence, and authority around in ways that can create conflict.
    • Personality clashes can create conflict.  This is a case where tolerance and thinking techniques can help, but at the end of the day, some people just don’t like each other.
    • Differences in values can create conflict.  You want one thing, somebody else wants another.  This is a fairly common source of conflict.
    • Too much communication can cause conflict.  While too little communication cause cause conflict, too much communication can cause conflict too.

Ways to Reduce Conflict Beyond Poor Communication

In my experience, you can reduce conflict by taking away the threats, creating shared goals, and creating more effective boundaries and interactions as needed.

For situations, you can learn to adapt, adjust or avoid, as well as shift tense to reduce conflict.

I also like John Wooden’s advice here, which is basically, it’s OK to disagree, just don’t be disagreeable.

But to reduce conflict, you should know what the actual sources of conflict are.

Best Books on Communication and Conflict

Here are some relevant books that I think really help in terms of dealing with conflict:

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Shift Tense to Resolve Conflict

Mutual Purpose

Start with Heart

Photo by pasukaru76.


  1. Sounds like a book to look into. It feels like lack of communication is more of a convenient excuse in the times I’ve had to deal with this kind of stress. Although there have been times when a critical requirement was forgotten or a time line changed without appropriate cross chatter those are pretty easy to identify as a specific issue vs the categories you’ve pointed out here.

    Another issue I’ve dealt with (which may fall into your over communication point, I’m not sure) is too much togetherness time. Specially in a small office folks can get on eachothers nerves more easily than I would have thought. A bit of time away can help a lot.

  2. Hi J. D. ~

    I think in most situations mangers have to be respected by having moral conduct them self. It the employee doesn’t have a boss with morals they aren’t going to respect him as team leader or boss.

    many times the team or crew need to treated like children giving them incentives and gentle pushes.

    Great topic.

  3. A good post for my return from my bus tour, lots of conflict there because one man felt the tour company had ripped him off – he tried to take his frustrations out on the guide and the bus driver, enlisting the other passenger’s in his thinking – the other passengers remained silent, mostly because they did not like the persons personality…It was very nice to analyze this conflict and not be the one who needed to resolve it…the two social workers went for a walk and let the folks in charge find resolution – they passed the buck…

    Many could use more work on conflict resolution – Thank you

  4. @ Fred

    It’s a seriously good book. It’s well written, to the point, and full of pearls of wisdom.

    On small workspaces, there’s a proximity pattern in NLP that explains some of it, and I have a post on “Personal Space” this hits some of the social psychology theories at play.

    @ BunnygotBlog

    Great point on modeling the way and leading by example.

    One of my favorite models is situational leadership, where it’s a continuum of motivation and direction/coaching.

    @ Tomasz

    No, poor communication is one thing, conflicting goals, beliefs, values is another. The idea is make sure you don’t confuse one for the other.

    @ Patricia

    Welcome back!

    Your story is a great reminder that likeability weighs in to the equation and can tip the scales on way or another.

  5. Wow, this post really hit home for me because I’m almost always blaming conflict on poor communication, but you’re sooo right. Knowing the source of the conflict is the most important thing and it’s something most people don’t usually do (or do right). Thanks for this post. I really think it’s going to change the way I think about conflicts (and communication).

  6. JD,

    This was an insightful post. Like Dani, I often use miscommunication as the reason (or excuse) for conflict. Yet many conflicts happen at a deeper level, and it’s nice that you summarised these various sources of conflict so succinctly.

    Your thinking and writing style is really growing on me – concise, accurate, useful. Keep it up!

  7. Nice blog post and sounds like a helpful book. However, there seems to be a naive view of personality differences here, treating them as a possible root cause of conflict when they are not. Look deeper.

    Personality is the outward expression of inner attitudes. Attitudes are the root cause, which are a product of values and beliefs, which can be difficult to change and can be a legitimate root cause of conflict. But attitudes can also be changed if an individual wants to change them over time. Even this may be dependent on the degree to which conflicting parties share the same goals, their mutual understanding of their roles, and whether they are playing by the same “rules of fair play” (norms).

    I challenge readers to look deeper for the root causes of conflict. The author correctly points to common goals as the first place to look and develop shared interest. Then consider what roles are necessary to achieve the goal, who will play each role, and do all parties have a mutual understanding of one another’s roles. Then do the hard work of identifying and working on group norms – the written and unwritten rules that will guide the behavior of conflicting parties. Values should be discussed and weighed at this stage as well as the earlier stage of goal alignment.

    Finally, when goals, roles and rules are in place, then look at relationship issues. Behavioral style, as the author writes, can be a source of conflict. More accurately, failure to understand differences in behavioral style can cause conflict and fight or flight behavior. Help all involved understand the legitimacy of their differences in style as a first step toward helping them develop a common language.

    The result of addressing the true root causes of conflict? You may still have conflict, quite frankly. However, now it more likely to be a productive conflict that leads to creativity and innovation borne out of respect. “I’m right, you’re wrong” and “I win, you lose” conflicts will be replaced with win-win relationships where everyone has potential “right answers” and the common goal of finding the best right answer.

    Start by trying this with your marriage – you’ll be amazed.

  8. Hi JD,

    I think the best way to handle communications with people is to try to see things from their perspective and realize that people do things for reasons. No one intentionally does something wrong, they usually act from a rational place based on how they view the world. The problem is that we each have different versions of what is right. The reason why people have conflicts is that each side is usually pretty convinced that their version is the right version.

  9. One of my favorite books on communication is “Nonviolent Communication.” It comes down to expressing our needs in a clear way and also being willing to accept other people’s needs then finding a middle ground.

    I like how you say that there are many levels of communication missteps. It can come from so many angles. When we realize that it isn’t just the dialogue that messes relationships up then we can find common ground much easier.

  10. I have realized that no one way works with everyone. For some, keeping things to the point – minimal makes it easier. For some, going into elaborate discussions to reach a common point of view works.

    It’s sometimes important to keep your like/dislike for certain individuals in check. Some people have the ability to get us so wired that even if what they are saying is right, we want to disagree with them.

  11. JD
    Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications book and work is just the best – I vote with Karl on that…I teach that to all couples that I work with and my children….powerful stuff!

    Doesn’t matter if you like or dislike the people you are attempting to resolve an issue with….

  12. @ Positively Present

    I found myself falling into the same pitfall. It was so easy to blame communication skills, when really it’s about knowing the source and using the right tool for the job.

    @ Daphne

    Thank you. I like to frame and compress insights. I think it’s the secret of turning insight into action.

    I’ll try 🙂

    @ Mark

    I like the way you connected the dots from personality to inner attitudes, beliefs and values.

    @ Nadia

    Well put. I like to think of it as multiple slices of a pie, and each person, brings a slice. The pie is more than the parts.

    @ Karl

    It sounds like a book I need to add to my bookshelf.

    One technique I like over finding the middleground, is what Covey calls finding the 3rd alternative. It means looking for an improved solution that includes everybody’s goals.

    @ Avani

    So true. The contrast is amazing. At work, there are some people I know that want one-liner emails. For others, they want me to set context, elaborate on details, and exhaust the point.

    Sometimes, just knowing the people patterns and what to expect helps a lot. One technique I like to use to keep curious is ask, “how might that be true?” It helps me explore other points of view.

    @ Patricia

    It really sounds like I need to check it out. I never heard of it, so it’s great to hear about a new gem for the collection.

    You echo the point I like to focus on which is, the problem or the objective.

  13. Boom!

    That perfectly explains all the conflicts between sons/daughters/mothers/fathers in law.

  14. This is an interesting post and whilst I can see the sense in it, in my life I’ve found that whilst communication may not be the cause of conflict, it is generally the best way to the resolution of it.

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