How to: successfully address conflicts online

As part of our “Online Teambuilding” series of topics in cooperation with the Haus des Stiftens, we want to bring you closer to the topics of online team leadership, online conflict management and online relationship building in three blog posts.
This blog article is based on a webinar recording. You are welcome to watch the webinar or read the content as part of the blog article. Just learn how it suits you best.

Do you know him? The famous elephant sitting in the middle of the room ? And just don’t want to move away by itself? It’s huge, everyone sees it, but nobody talks about it!
Dealing with conflicts is not that easy for many and it becomes even more difficult in the digital space, where it is even easier to avoid conflicts. The clarifying discussion is often postponed to the next personal meeting. But what to do if no face-to-face conversation can take place? You can find out how to successfully address conflicts online in this blog post.

The elefant in the room

Online conflict resolution and when it makes sense

Conflicts can be prevented early on. Ideally, before they have even arrived in the organization. But when does it make sense to address them and when not?
That depends entirely on the situation. If there is a face-to-face meeting in the near future, you should resolve your conflict in person. However, if it is not foreseeable when and whether you can meet in person, it is advisable to address the conflict online and not to procrastinate. Especially during a pandemic or when you live very far apart, the best way to discuss your disagreements online is before the conflict drains you of energy that would be better spent elsewhere.

“An open mind is not an empty one” – Roger Fisher

This quote from Roger Fisher describes very well what is important in a conflict situation. It is important to know that we can only resolve conflicts if both parties are open to resolution. Before the interview, you should think about what is important to you in this conflict. Nevertheless, you have to remain flexible, remain open to new and creative solution strategies and accept and accept new arguments. There will be different areas of tension and challenges, and this requires an open mind without prejudice. Because the greatest challenge in a conflict situation lies within ourselves.

What is a conflict?

Image quote: "Tension situations in which interdependent parties attempt to achieve incompatible goals or implement opposing plans of action."

Before we can start solving the conflict, we must first take a closer look at the conflict. The following questions will help you in preparing for conflict resolution:

WHO is involved in the conflict?

Is it an interpersonal conflict between two people? Or is there a conflict between groups? Does a triangular team even exist?
Depending on who is involved, there is a different form of conflict that can change.

WHAT is the issue of the conflict?

Is it about different ideas about the goals? Do you not agree on your strategies for action? Or do you have different values or personal needs? Is certain information missing? Or have you not yet found the right way to communicate with each other?
As you can see, there are many different possibilities as to what exactly could bother a person. The WHAT can be different for each party to the conflict!

HOW do you resolve disputes?

There are different ways to resolve a conflict. And the strategies for solving the problem can also differ greatly. These individual paths and strategies can collide with each other, preventing a solution to the problem.

Conflicts on a factual level with different backgrounds

There is often a visible conflict at the factual level. You argue about little things like emails or not showing up at meetings. However, there are very different motivations that influence this. These can be, for example, interests, feelings, values or perspectives. Intrinsic feelings such as one’s own discomfort at the relevant moment also influence the reactions and actions of the conflicting parties.
What has just been described can be clearly seen in this pyramid. Because there is always a visible layer with different, invisible backgrounds!

Pyramid Conflicts at the factual and emotional level

Online conflicts – 5 special causes

Online work offers additional challenges in conflict situations, which we will discuss in more detail below.

1. Increased insecurity

We don’t know exactly where the information we get comes from. We don’t know exactly how others will react to our messages. And when you’re already feeling insecure, you’re more vulnerable. That is why team building is of great importance. Through cohesion and a sense of connectedness, insecurities are less common as members feel more comfortable. You are welcome to have a look at our article on the topic of ” Online Teambuilding .

2. Missing or only incomplete information

Simple mishaps such as an email not being forwarded lead to incomplete exchange of information. Suddenly you are no longer up to date and wonder why you were forgotten. It’s easy to feel mistreated here.

3. Limited opportunities for communication

To avoid misunderstandings, we usually do not just read a message from another person. We observe the other person’s posture, gaze, facial expressions and gestures and pay attention to the tone of voice. These tips help us to prevent conflicts. Due to the digital work, this is hardly possible or not possible at all, depending on the tool used.

4. Lack of context

I can’t see online if the other person is stressed or having a bad day. I lack this information, which can lead to uncertainties and the feeling of a lack of classification.

5. “Head cinema”

We know that we do not (can) access all information online. Therefore, these gaps are filled with one’s own thoughts and ideas. This is often much more dramatic than reality.

Extremely high conflict tolerance meets a quick exit

Despite all our efforts, conflicts have a high potential for our further development as well as for that of the team and the organization. In the digital space, however, it is very easy to suppress and/or postpone these emerging conflicts. They are usually addressed later than in a personal context. In volunteer work in particular, there is a great danger that problems will be suppressed until people suddenly leave the volunteer work. It is important to face conflicts with a positive attitude. Existing conflicts in teams have nothing to do with poor organization. They are a normal part of teams and team building.

Our tip: It is important to develop a good conflict resolution strategy.

The Thomas Kilmann model of conflict strategies

Konfliktstrategien - Das Thomas-Kilmann-Modell

Depending on what you focus on, you pursue a different conflict resolution strategy. Are you very focused on your own needs? Or do you rather prioritize the needs of the other party? If a person who gives in quickly meets a person who wants to assert themselves, the conflict is (supposedly) quickly resolved. But can both of them live with it?

Each of us carries all conflict strategies within us – depending on the situation, topic and relationship to the other person, we behave differently. Our conflict strategy also changes in online conflicts. Take a look at our worksheet to find out what type of conflict you are.

We often do not know how to act in online discussions or conflict situations. More often we avoid the matter or strive for strong enforcement. The goal should be to achieve a win-win situation that both parties can live with. Or if this is not possible, at least to find a common compromise, a middle solution. In this case, both are only halfway, but even this can be satisfying.

How do I moderate a conflict?

A prerequisite for resolving a conflict is a common interest in getting rid of the problem. Everyone involved must be open to a solution, because only through your own honest interest in finding a solution and continuing to work together can you motivate the other person to actively participate in solving the conflict.

Die Eskalationsstufen eines Konfliktes - Treppenmodell

Conflicts have different escalation levels. At the beginning ( levels 1 to 4 ) there is usually only hardening, discomfort or different interests in the room. These can usually be clarified in a conversation.
Level 2 to 5 conflicts can often be resolved well with conflict moderation. You are welcome to take a look at our coaching sessions.
At some point, however, conflicts become so great that it is better to seek support. From level 5 it is advisable to seek professional help, as these conflicts can no longer be resolved on your own.

Conflict moderation according to the Harvard method

The conflict moderation according to the Harvard method is based on the Harvard Negotiation concept of lawyer and conflict researcher Roger Fisher and anthropologist William Ury from the USA. It deals with negotiation processes and is based on a large study that explored how to achieve a shared “YES” moment and a win-win situation. William Ury continues to develop the concept to this day. To learn more about the separation of factual and relationship levels, needs, interests, desires, the development of options and the determination of fair criteria, please take a look at our short article on the Harvard method.

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