4 Ways To Deal With Virtual Conflict

If you’re currently working remotely, then there's every chance that you may be feeling disconnected from your teammates and colleagues. Keeping those connections whilst all being in different parts of the city, or indeed the world, is challenging to say the least. And a fragile sense of connection can be all too easily unsettled if there is conflict among colleagues. Tension through the online medium is pervasive and unpleasant. And while we would all like to avoid it, it is unfortunately, no less likely to arise.

The reality is we  cannot avoid conflict, arguments, and difficult conversations. They are part of what happens when different people with different values, priorities and ways of doing things rub up against each other. So the goal shouldn't be to avoid difficult conversations, but manage them with grace, kindness, and respect on both sides. 

A useful position can be found in this simple line:

"Be an advocate of your own and the other person's values."

In short, good communication can help you negotiate the rocky ground conflict presents, so there are no winners or losers, but two parties that come out with mutual respect. Isn't that the hallowed ground?


Don't let conflict affect your workplace

Poor approaches to conflict can wreak havoc in the workplace. In a survey of 2000 workers by the Chartered Managers Institute, 80% said they had had no formal training on how to tackle difficult conversations. This lack of training has consequences. 43% of senior managers admit to losing their temper and shouting in a difficult conversation, while 57% of respondents said they would do almost anything to avoid a difficult conversation.

If you've every been on the receiving end of someone shouting at you at work, you're likely to agree it is the most sure-fire way to create a toxic environment.  And for most of is, the current remote working situation only makes dealing with conflict even harder. So here are some helpful tools for good communication in conflict.

Tip 1 - Stop avoiding the issue

Conflict’s potential for damage can feel pretty real to us. We don’t want to upset someone, we don’t want to face the aftermath, we don’t want to ruin a functional relationship. But by avoiding arguments, we suppress our values - an arrangement that will only breed more misunderstanding, irritation and resentment. 

In an article about the benefits of arguing, The Guardian cited Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, who said, “We are conscious of the risks of speaking up, but unconscious of the risks of not speaking up.” 

If we continually try and sidestep conflict, then we are never asking the other person to share their side of things, and there is a danger we will construct an internal narrative about the other person. Once we have our 'story' in place, it is a slippery slop. Next, we come to our own conclusions about their motives, character and feelings.  Then, to protect ourselves from this person we think they are, we put distance between us and them - something that is all too easy to default to when you aren’t sharing the same physical workspace. While this may be an effective strategy in the short term, it's not going to do any good for the office bonhomie in the longer term!

“We tend to only weigh the immediate and obvious risks [to conflict]” said Joseph Grenny, “without considering the longer term costs to intimacy, trust and connection.”

Tip 2 - Stop and think it through

If you know there’s something you need to say to someone - and you’re worried how they will respond - an urge to ‘get it over with’ can kick in. The opposite of avoidance but no less destructive, a hell-for-leather approach means we jump in with all our assumption and aggression unchecked.

However, there is a better way!

Before you jump into conflict, it's helpful to strategize. First of all, you need to understand why you are going to speak up. If your goal is to take someone down a peg, or to shift blame around, there is a poor chance that the other person is going to respond positively. They are going to put up all their defences and - whether they are deferential or aggressive -  you’re likely to end the argument with anger, a feeling of having “won” or “lost” and a distinct lack of connection.

Tip 3 - Align your goals

Ultimately, your goal needs to be to bring the best out of them. After all, isn’t that what you want? If you’re in a professional situation, you have obvious reasons for wanting them to perform. But even in romantic relationships, you want to champion your partner to show up as the kindest, most receptive version of themselves. 

No matter how good your points are, your seeds will mean nothing if they don’t fall on fertile soil. Once you find a shared objective, “I know you want to achieve this” or, “I understand this is important to you…” or in a romantic relationship, “I know you want to show affection…”  it gets their skin in the game. After that, anything you say can be received as something that serves them. 

The positive feedback sandwich is something of a cliché. But it’s a cliché that works. “You’re doing this so well, but I think to better achieve that goal you could do this other thing.” Then ending on a note that’s celebratory, “I’m excited to see what you do, going forward,” shows that you fundamentally believe in them and that this is not a downer, but an opportunity.

If your conflict-conversation took place over phone or remote call, it can help to follow up with a positive email or check-in call when both parties have had a chance to let each other's points sink in, and to reaffirm a positive working strategy going forward. According to Remote.co, the best aftercare for arguments in the virtual workspace is to:

“Follow up both one-on-one conversations and group meetings with a document summarizing decisions and actions. Ask participants to review for both understanding and possible errors. It can then serve as a point of reference that will aid in work getting done and arguments being limited.”

Tip 4 - Handling the conflict that explodes like a geyser

Sometimes an argument is sprung on you suddenly and unexpectedly. In these times your internal voice seems to yell, “Brace! Brace!” as you prepare for an adrenaline-fueled defence. 

Simply taking a moment to breathe can help you respond. Physiologically, you are giving your fight-or-flight system time to be overtaken by your cerebral cortex, by which we make rational, value-based decisions. If you experience a flash of anger, just counting to five before you respond helps put your cerebral cortex back in control.

From there it’s about showing you are receptive, even if you disagree. Conflict generally starts because the other party holds a value position that they believe you are offending. So even if you don’t share that value, showing that you respect its importance to them can turn the conflict situation into a positive moment of connection. Whether you agree with their point(s) or not, is almost irrelevant. It was never about being right. It was never about winning. It was about understanding each other’s position and moving forward together. 

It's fair to say that it's not the easiest of times for anyone.  So today perhaps take a second to thing about this - how are you (and your team) handling conflict at the moment? Are your communication channels open and honest?  Perhaps take 10 minutes to simply check in today and see how everyone is.

And if you think you need any help in this area we can cover handling conflict and difficult conversations as part of our tailored 1:1 Effective Communication courses.

Let’s go and convert raised voices and unspoken grievances into opportunities for connection. 


P.S. If you're dealing with many different nationalities in your team, check out this quick video for some tips on improving communication in multicultural teams,

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